I didn’t believe him for the longest time. Three years since Mama’s passing, and he continued to see her. Day before the sale, I heard him scramble into his pants and flannel, laces criss-crossing, light still murky uncertain. I knew he’d caught sight of something from his bedroom window. I pulled on socks, back door swung wide. I followed him, imagined Mama’s words in my ears Look after your father, as if she’d known, as if somehow she’d known.
Outside Daddy’s boots broke dirt clots, the little land we had left went on unplowed, just stubs of corn, old mud ruts now dry. Didn’t want me to follow him. Tess! He called, my mother’s name. How had he gotten so far? Face sweat shined when I caught up to him; I tugged his elbow. Let’s go home, I told him, shivering with chill despite the wet heat. He took off. I heard emptiness rattle inside his shirt. He refused to eat. Said nothing tasted right. I looked up in the direction he ran, saw a woman in a grey gown and overcoat. She plodded firm. Her back to us. Tess, he said to her, please. I didn’t want what he claimed to be true. Had stood beneath the old oak, the one stone with two engraved names. Thought I remembered crying.
I reached him again. He put a hand up to silence me. The sky peached, moon receded. We followed her across the colorless grass and into the trees. Briars caught on the length of her gown. Glare on the river, everything lifting with fire, a new day. We came up on her. He reached a hand out to her shoulder to turn her, and she looked at us—a stranger, eyes wild and unfocused. She shoved Daddy. No weight to hold him steady—and he flew, backside hitting a maple we sometimes tapped. She kept on, Daddy dazed, egg-like lump rising on the back of his head—Tess? His face sheened white.
She’s dead, I reminded him.
Luann, your mama’s never gonna forgive me, he said, rubbing the bruise. We watched the woman descend into the river furrow, move along the dry bank.
That night he sat on the edge of my bed, told me that was no woman but a ghost, said ghosts were everywhere and they were nothing to fear. Your mama’s the one I’m waiting for. Bound to come back to give me her mind, losing her people’s land like this. Tried to tell him there’s no such thing as ghosts, but he gave me a hollow look, like I had no real thought in my head. I was scared and after he left I cried, covered my head with blankets. Truth be told, if she were upset with anyone it would be me. After a bit I tried to concentrate on summer sounds: peepers and gassy toads. I listened for her footsteps. Stiffened in my iron bed. Counted my breaths. Mama? It could have been ten minutes, an hour that passed when I lifted the blankets, blinked into darkness.
Mrs. Sparkman arrives early with two women from church. They set up the tables. Talk about the new priest, the upcoming pancake breakfast, the heat. They set out buckets of ice and jugs of sun tea. I bring stuff from inside the house and set it on the tables. Old clothes, the little jewelry she had. Dishes and kitchen things. A couple stained dolls. Daddy’s in the barn with the men. As we work the women ask me questions out the sides of their mouths. I am eight now. Do I like to swim? You must get lonely out here, no playmates your own age. They click their tongues. Wear looks of pity. I twirl with my arms up, white dress swirling, curls jostling to my shoulders, then stop. One hand chews up fabric in a fist. They applaud; say I am cute. And then I head back inside, don’t want them to think I can’t earn my keep.
Gonna be trouble later. Nobody knows her people.
Hush now. Girl’s right there.
Mark my words.
More people arrive. Plastic bags hold purchases. The cash box fills. Everyone buys bits of us until only remnants are left—mismatched socks, an egg timer that doesn’t work. I hold Daddy’s hand when the auctioneer clears his throat, waves a hand in attention. The driest year Daddy can remember. July isn’t even over and the trees have already dropped their leaves. Tassels on the corn dry frittered things. Had to give up all the cows. Nothing for pasture. Nothing to pay for feed. River smells of mud, decaying fish. Vultures spoon the sky.
Daddy’s not the only guy Papermill laid off, he’s just the unluckiest, he says. The buckets of ice have turned to water by the time they are done. Some shake Daddy’s hand, squeeze his shoulder. Take care, now, they say. We sit on the steps and watch the train of cars leave land that has been in my mother’s family for three generations—land the bank has sold. Dust whorls. We sweat. There is no breeze.
Two days he stays in bed. Ripe with fever, sweating. I sit beside him in a chair. Hold cool cloths to his forehead. Read aloud from books I have. Sadness seeps out of him. When he sleeps, he whimpers about the land, eyes half-lidded and dancing. Daddy, wake up. It’s a dream. You are dreaming. I clap my hands around his. Callused and feathered with hairs. He blinks awake, stares. I love you, Daddy, I tell him. I count to one hundred and back down. Fan whirs in its place on the dresser top, the faintest air moving.
I do what I imagine Mama doing. Wipe the counters with a mixture of vinegar and water, use an old fly swatter to beat dust from the curtains. Hang laundry on the line out back. Daddy is not whole and needs nutrition, so I make a bowl of oatmeal, stir in the last bit of brown sugar. Sit at his bedside. Try to rouse him. Time to eat, Daddy. Gotta keep up your strength. But he pays me no mind and I know he is dreaming about her, that together he and Mama are making a plan. I try to push it out but cannot forget that I am not of them. At what point will I be sold, given away?
That night, I can’t sleep. Am afraid of what may appear if I close my eyes. Instead I wander the house, rooms empty. I go to his bedroom and stand in the doorway. Stroke his arm to make him wake. Tess? he asks.
It’s me, Luann. Your daughter.
What do you want? I don’t say anything and he scoots over. I situate myself right alongside him. The up and down of his chest and my chest. My fears evaporate. Promise I’ll just close my eyes for a moment. Then it’s morning and I wake alone. All that heat. Birds chirping, sheet pushed back, bedclothes damp and empty. Daddy? I move through rooms vacant of furniture, rugs, just a dull echo. Heart bamming away with all the silence, leaves outside sway with their crispness. Everything burned up, dying.
I find him toeing the ledge of the barn, that open space on the second floor that leads to nothing—bits of hay, mouse droppings. Daddy, stay there. I’m coming up. Feet sooty, eyes dancing. I scurry up the rungs. Stand behind him, smell his sourness.
I’m not right, he says.
It’s not you, it’s times, I say, and inch closer.
I was the one who planted that baby inside her, he says. His hair stands wild; I feel how close he is to the edge.
She says she misses me. Never used to say things like that. He drops his chin and I grab his middle, yank him back until he collapses on top of me, the floor holding us. We both shake, dust in my nostrils, it burns my eyes. Sun all bared and his sobbing up against me, his back to my front. Air sputters out of him in choked bits. I hold him like this for some time, tight as I am able, wish Mama would appear.
They are building houses west of town on land that once belonged to the Doreghtys and Ryans. River’s Crossing is what the sign says. We pack a lunch and sit in the shadow of a hickory. Apples dipped in peanut butter—food the church people leave on the step. You gotta eat something, I tell him, just like I imagine her saying. I know, he says, palming a whole apple.
We sit so long waiting for Mama that my backside begins to tingle. She’s different now, he says. Ingleside is different, too. The deer thin and sickly looking. Smallmouth bass used to leap into a net extended from Red Arrow Bridge, now they are pale scrawny things that barely ribbon the water; Daddy refuses to eat them. The bridge is near Papermill and Daddy won’t go near that side of town.
The bulldozers gnash the ground, drop black soil in mounds; the earth clean smelling, rich looking, but the top layer blows away—dust coats our eyes, lines the insides of our fingers and toes. The houses have long peaked roofs and attached garages. Doors tall enough to let in giants. Tiny octagonal signs advertise security systems. The workmen hammer and drill, their backs bare and tanned. We wait until the last crew drives off and then I follow him down to where the blacktop ends and the for-sale signs disappear. We head in a ways past drought-stricken trees to the crumbling brick of a hearth. Can see where the foundation stood—cinderblocks streaked black. The frame of a door and two windows beside that. He moves through the area, boots catch on reams of honeysuckle, crush weeds. He keeps walking around as if he’s trying to decide something. Stops. They think you would be better off elsewhere. Living with someone else….his voice trails off. Won’t look at me. He opens and closes his hands. Palms his neck, the side of his face that still doesn’t look right—skin bumpy and disjointed.
I squint up at him. He starts walking again. A breeze curdles up from somewhere else. Dries the sweat on my neck where my hair is pulled back. I feel like crying. When he keeps to his silence I go and grab him. Hold him by the pant loops. I want to stay with you, I say. Watch the crazy panning of his eyes. He’s here but not here. He lifts his arms a bit, does a half spin, gestures, and I turn with him. He talks. This used to be the kitchen. Right here. My mother and father. The twins sat on either side of mother. My brothers. He’s stroking his neck again, the warpled skin, and I know he smells the smoke, feels everything crashing and ripping down around him, and then the fire streaming from him. He runs a hand on the brick. Rubs it back and forth like the tracings we’ve made at school, only he’s pressing down with his wrist, and the skin’s getting all scraped up and dotted with red.
As he talks, pictures begin to appear in my mind and I wonder if this is what it’s like to see things. To be ghost haunted just like him. He points to the brush, to nothingness. I try to force the image of his dead family. I want to be more like him except in this way.
The first time he saw a ghost he was just a boy, out hunting pheasant with his brother and father. His mother was at home preparing the dressing. He held the gun in front of him, one hand on the stock, the other the barrel. He was a careful boy, a boy who wanted to please; he saw a flock of birds, aimed but the birds scattered before he could fire—hot heat poured from his arm, and he fell over at the sight of his blood spilling out onto the grass. His younger brother unaware of his misplaced shot. Too frightened yet to scream, little flap of skin on his arm, white flash of bone beneath. And then a man slipped out from the trees, a big man, dark hoodless eyes, skin as brown as deer hide. He snuck out, seemed to appear from the tall grass. The man passed a hand over my daddy’s arm and the blood dried up, went away altogether. The seam that had ripped open his arm disappeared. His skin again whole. Just a few stains on the grass to let him know it had occurred. By the time his brother found him, the man had evaporated into the trees.
He told his father he thought he saw Jesus. Son, he said, you must pray that happens in your lifetime.
Once the bank took down the sign from out front, the papers for the new owners filed, Mama came more frequently. I heard my daddy at the kitchen table with his checkbook and the security box late into the night, and then the chair would push back suddenly and he’d up and leave. I learned to sleep lightly, to keep my sneakers tied. I’d keep a thermos of water near the door, would grab it on the way out. Never knew how long it would take, where he would go. Sometimes he wanted to be left alone—turned the handle as he closed the door soft and careful, and then I’d hear his boots thwaping the ground, and he’d be off. I followed his slim shape, pumped my arms to keep up. His chest heaved, a comfort to me. I followed him across a rise into trees, then over a low wooden bridge, the river still beneath us. Tess! He cried, voice mournful. I did not see anything but his slight shape, the river’s decay heavy and rich. He pointed out her shape in the movement of some shrubs. I stared long and hard and still she did not appear. But I’d watch with him, and the longer we sat the more ghosts he saw: black people ragged and knobby kneed, faces clenched as they clamored the ground, crouched like animals amid brambles and dead leaves as they headed further north. One time I stood there beside my father as he said a whole troop of them trudged in tattered clothes, faces worn. Twenty, thirty of them. A baby cried and a woman lifted the child to her breast. We stood there and that time I did feel cool air moving. Had always knows the route to the Underground Railroad cut right through these parts, my mama’s people offered food, shelter. But I didn’t see a thing.
The woman with the child held her out to Daddy and he turned away, grabbed my shoulder, told me to start walking and fast. It’s one thing to see them, he said. Another thing altogether when they start seeing you.
And then nothing is as it seems. I find the skull of a squirrel, poke it with a stick, but then I see it whole, running along the underbrush, up a tree.
What is real, what is imagined?
He tells me how the land was different before they adopted me, how he planted acres of corn and soybeans—more than seventy beef cattle. Used to make enough to attend the movies on Saturday nights, a nice ham and turkey at Christmastime.
We sit on the porch. Watch the sun beat the scabbed grasses, what by now should have been corn throwing shadows on our legs, leaves brushing up against each other in a soft whisper. He tells a story for every plot—points out where he first glimpsed my mother from behind a milking pail, the hill where he shot a buck; over there is where he says I took my first steps. You need to remember this, he says. I won’t always be here. Where are you going, I ask, but he does not answer.
Our last night and the house is empty. I make Daddy drive me to Welmann’s where I use all our coupons on butter and sour cream, potatoes, eggs, ground beef. I make him dinner. Meatloaf with mashed potatoes pooling with gravy, buttered carrots in a glossy sheen. Now you eat, I say, one hand on hip. My best mama pose. I watch him touch the food on the chipped plate; the fork tines leave a ribbed impression, gravy floods from his potatoes. But he won’t eat. His eyes have already started to pop from his face, excavating the bones on his cheeks. This worries me. All the fears climbing on top of each other. I finish my glass of milk, wipe my mouth and stand. I have already fixed quarters to the bottom of my shoes, tap in a little circle on the linoleum, finish with my arms up, ta-dah! He claps a few hands, says that is real nice, although he doesn’t mean it. His eyes seemed to brighten. Yes, yes, he says, nodding. Yes, she is.
Who you speaking to? I ask.
He chuckles, stubble on his beard flecked with white. It’s your mama.
I don’t see her.
She’s right over there. I walk in the direction he points, push my face in the corner of the room. Mama! It’s Luann. You talk to me right now, and I stomp.
Don’t take that tone with her, he says. She’s still your mama.
Show yourself! I demand. Begin to think maybe Daddy really is crazy because there’s no one here but us.
We unroll blankets on the living room floor but it is too hot to even blink. Moths flick against the light outside the barn and I wonder about the land. We aren’t the only ones bought out by developers. Somehow I doze. Wake to buzzing, the click of the latch. Daddy?
Can hear him shuffling away in his boots. Slide on my sneakers. He hasn’t gotten far. Once I fall into step behind him he begins to run and I follow him. Daddy! Wait! I have a four-leaf clover pressed between sheets of waxed paper, the Bible from Mama’s family. A bit of hair I cut from her when she was pregnant and napping and not yet dead. But I doubt any of this will work. Please stop!
He runs until he arrives downtown a good two miles from our house. Both of us sweaty and breathless when he slows in front of the ice cream parlor. He visors his hands around his eyes, presses his face into the glass. She’s fixing something, he says, sweat puddles the back of his shirt and at his armpits. I look through the window. See the counter with its striped stools. Booths with napkin dispensers. I don’t see anybody. Why won’t she show herself to me?
It’s hot fudge, he says. Yow-wee. Extra cherries, Tess! You know it.
Behind us the sign for Bremeyer’s Department Store glows red. Beside it for-sale signs and realtors, all those panes of glass swallow his sound, send it right back up at us. Hey! he says, brows drawn, mouth tightening. This way.
I tug his elbow. Let’s go back. Rush my mind to get him to turn around, head home. The animals are gone. Land sold. We should go back, I say.
Don’t you want ice cream, Luann? He put a hand around my shoulder as he says this, looks right into my face as he speaks. Your mama is right there, and she’s making us a treat. I look into the shop. Want to see something. Memories of my mother have evaporated to a kind of blurred uncertainty. Tess! He rattles the door handle. Let me in. His voice skims across empty storefronts, the two storey brick buildings. He picks up a cement ashtray parked next to a bench, heaves it up, veins in his neck popping. Daddy, I say, stepping forward, don’t do something you’re going to regret. He elbows me away and in one movement swings the ashtray through the door; glass shatters, a bell goes off, surprising us both.
He charges into the parlor, heels crunching and skidding on glass. Tess? His arm bloody. The alarm won’t quit.
Daddy, I say, Let’s go. He is behind the counter now palming the space. Lights flash red and blue, a siren. His blood pinks the smoothness.
She was right here. I saw her. He starts opening and closing the cabinets. Looking behind closet doors.
We’ve got to go. She’s not here. And while I know he hasn’t forgotten, know it pains to hear it, I remind him. She’s in the ground on the hill. The sheriff comes in then. What’s all this about, Teensy? he asks my daddy, and I feel the familiar pride as he steps forward, takes Daddy’s hand. Sometimes they hunt together. Once delivered a calf for the sheriff’s son and his wife. Everybody likes Daddy.
Daddy shakes his head, offers a half shrug. The sheriff presses paper napkins to the wound. It’s hard times, is what Daddy says.
That it is, says the sheriff. Don’t need to take it out on private property, you hear? He claps both hands on Daddy’s shoulders and shakes them. You hear me? Gonna have to pay for this, he says. Daddy promises he will and the sheriff offers us a ride in his car. I let myself in the backseat. Daddy’s in front.
People are starting to talk, Teensy, he says, turns on the air conditioning, and the first icy blasts change my skin to plastic.
So let them talk.
I mean really talk. You’ve got to get hold of yourself or someone’s gonna do it for you. You got a daughter. He looks at me in the rear mirror, forces a dopey smile. Think of Luann.
You think I don’t know that. You think she’s not on my mind constant? So tired everyone telling me what’s right, what I can and cannot do. You people are killing me. His voice escalates and he’s angry. Let me out, he says, working the door.
What are you doing?
Daddy punches the door open and rolls out into the grass. The car jerks to a stop. Insects dart in the beams from the car, that long road stretched before us. The sheriff swings his door ajar and sticks his head out. I could take you in, Teensy. You know that? He follows Daddy in the car, the headlights catching shots of his back or legs as Daddy walks and we all head home.
The next day is like any other. We roll up the blankets and huck them in the back of the truck. The door rattles in its frame as he shuts it, house empty of us. Daddy drives to Grandma’s house, empties boxes from the back of the truck and puts them in the basement. I don’t answer him when he asks me if I’m ready, then turns toward Mrs. Sparkman’s house. Still don’t believe him when he says Grandma can’t care for me. Say the truth, I think. She doesn’t like me. Not of her kind.
He promises that he’ll be back in a week. Tells me to mind my manners. He’s going to Savoy for a few days to see about a job. He sets my bag just inside the door where Mrs. Sparkman tells him to leave it. Her house is warmer than outside and smells of stewed tomatoes. He gives me a hard hug. You be good now, he says.
As his truck pulls away, Mrs. Sparkman waves a handkerchief from the porch, her bosom swelling against the cabbage roses on her housedress. I refuse to look at him. Peer at ground. I hear him turn his truck around in the grass. Dust lifts up. I try to ground my heels in the dirt, but I can’t do it. Don’t want to stay here, am not going be left behind. Mrs. Sparkman calls my name, tells me to come back. Pump my puny arms, and here I run beside the truck. He slouches over the wheel. Won’t look at me. He has the window down, the knob of an elbow out. I’m almost even with him when he gives it gas and shoots forward—and I choke on all that dust, bend over and spit cough, and when I stand up again I see her a ways off in the crest of a hill, my mama’s unmistakable step. Her nightdress is faded but there is a rise in the belly, that almost baby. I see her now. Wave my arms—she’s right here! Daddy, wait!
I believe you, I say, she’s here! His truck keeps on, dust in its wake. Mom! I call, a word I rarely say, and raise a hand. When she doesn’t look up I take off in her direction. She has shown herself to us both. But I will be the one to force her to remain.