By Nathaniel Kressen
In the town’s lone diner, Junior sat at the table nearest the kitchen, watching his mother work. She was far from old but no longer young, and moved as though crossing an iced-over river that was beginning to thaw. He had found her crying that morning behind the outhouse and wished with all his might he could be her hero.
Beside him, Tike tugged at his sleeve. “I’m finished,” she said, sliding her homework across the table.
“That was fast.”
“Mom makes them too easy.”
“They’re supposed to be your grade level. You want to try mine?”
Tike grabbed it and began scribbling. Junior flicked her braid into her face. She shot him a look and swept it back.
He watched her solve problem after problem, pencil flying across the page.
One of his mother’s tables signaled for the check. Junior tried to get her attention but she was talking to two men dressed all in white. It was a new job for her and she couldn’t afford to lose it. Lately they’d gotten their breakfast and lunch there every day and brought leftovers home for dinner.
Finally she saw him waving and led the two men over. “Kids, I’d like you to meet Brother Samuels and Brother Smith.”
“Nice to meet you,” said the missionaries. After shaking hands with Tike, one said, “Quite a grip you’ve got there.”
“My father told me only weak people give weak handshakes.”
“Your father sounds like a smart man.”
“About some things,” she said. “Not others.”
Their mother blanched. “You’ll have to excuse her.”
“It’s quite alright,” said the missionary. “What grade are you in, sweetheart?”
Tike looked to their mother, who explained, “The schools shut down as the town got older. The nearest one is an hour’s drive away. I’ve been giving them lesson plans from the library.”
“It’s that storefront at the corner,” said Tike. “The one that’s almost always closed.”
“I see,” said the missionary. “Do you enjoy the lessons from your library?”
Tike glanced again at their mother. “They’re too easy.”
“She’s doing mine right now,” added Junior, “answering questions even I couldn’t get.”
“Remarkable,” said the missionary. “It’s a gift from God, her thirst for knowledge. You must be proud.”
“We are,” said their mother. “I only wish we could do more. But in a town like this…”
“Well,there are opportunities available. It’s just a matter of pursuing them. Our congregation on the coast is a fine example. We offer daily instruction of the highest caliber that nurtures the qualities you value most in your daughter.”
“Did you say the coast?” asked Junior.
“Where even the sun chooses to call home,” said the missionary.
“Ma’am?” called the table. “The check?”
Their mother left apologetically. The missionary pulled a slim book from his shirt pocket and handed it to Tike. Its threads were exposed on the spine. Inside were handwritten verses.
“Did you make this?” gasped Tike.
The missionary took her hand. “We all make our words to live by.”
Their mother hung the first crucifix over the front door. Their father failed to notice. The next she placed over the door to the children’s room. Tike set about stitching a book of her own. The third crucifix went over their parents’ bedroom followed by more over the windows, the counters, the outhouse. She took down the flower paintings from the wall and repurposed the nails. She placed more upon every surface. Scarcely a foot existed without the Son of God’s likeness.
The night came when their father picked one off the table at dinner. “What’s this?”
“You know what it is,” she replied, scooping the last of her peas.
“Since when are we religious?”
“We were married in the Church.”
“Never had junk like this in our house.”
The children chewed their food.
“Are you going out tonight?” asked their mother.
“Might. Might not.” He scraped his empty plate. “Good to show my face in case folks are hiring.”
She laid down her spoon. “I thought you paid the water bill.”
“No point. Nothing’s going to grow this season the way they’re blasting those mountains.” He pointed his knife at the kids. “Be careful drinking that water, hear? Put it on the stove and boil it. Damn government’s poisoning us day by day, for what? ‘Cause some towelhead’s ripping us off with oil. Screw it. Go back to horses. Let every man kill his food.”
“So we still have the money?”
Their father reached over and stole a bite from Junior’s plate.
“Jack. Tell me we have the water money.”
“Don’t take that tone with me. I’m working.”
“I’m making myself visible. When folks need a set of hands they’ll think of me.”
“Children, go to your room.”
“Junior, take your sister.”
“They’re not going anywhere.”
“Now,” said their mother.
Their father slammed his hand on the table. No one moved. When he took his seat again the chair leg broke and he fell like a capsized turtle. Their mother laughed with her hand over her mouth. He shot to his feet, glaring at her. He took the broken chair outside and tossed it onto the trash pile. He returned with two milk crates that he stacked atop one another at the table. They left him a head below the rest. He stared across the empty plates, whites of his eyes showing. “You think I’m a joke?” he asked in a shaking voice. “I put food on this table.”
“This was from work,” said their mother. “Without them we’d be eating our reserves.”
“Where do you get off, talking to your husband like that?”
“Maybe I’ve seen the light.”
“Maybe you lost your mind.” The gas lantern flickered. Phantoms danced across the silverware. “Let the children go to their rooms,” she said quietly.
“Why?” he asked.
“You’re not in a good place.”
He shifted on the crates, resembling a bull about to charge. “You think I drank that money, don’t you? You think I’m the reason nothing grows.”
“Others managed last season.”
“Your father left us a shitty piece of land.”
“He always made it grow.”
“Yeah and he walked on water last I checked, too.” Their father rustled a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket. When he smoked, the cloud veiled his eyes. He gave a half-cough and in a softer voice said, “Chestnut’s dead.”
She lowered the food from her mouth. “When?”
“A few days ago. Found out from Keap this morning.”
She shook her head.
“He always rode her too hard. She had good years left.”
“We never should have sold her.”
“He loved that horse same as you and me,” he said, reaching for her hand.
“He wasn’t there when she was born,” she said, pulling away.
“No,” he said, sitting back.“He wasn’t… You kids were too young to remember but we used to take you up on that horse plenty.”
“I remember,” said Junior. Clearing his throat, he added, “I could help you get the farm going. We could figure it out together.”
“Your father’s not going to get the farm going,” said his mother. “He’s not going to even try.”
“Listen to me,” said his father. “It’s not your place to question me. It wasn’t long ago that a man got respect from his family. I respected my father and you’re going to respect me. If say I’m working, I’m working, no matter if there’s a drink in my hand or not. Far sight better than wasting money on these damn crosses.” He lifted one. “How much you pay for this? How much money you wasted?” He pointed his cigarette at her, blinking back emotion. “You’re taking these back, hear? Every last one.”
He went to the cabinet and found the money jar empty. “Where is it? I know you’re not that foolish.” No one moved, he drummed his fingers on the cabinet. Finally their mother met Tike’s eyes and nodded. The girl fetched a smaller jar from a latched cupboard in the floor. Their father pocketed the bills inside. He tugged on her braid, saying “Choo-choo, little one.” She stood her ground, not smiling. He faced the others. “I’m going to make myself visible. When I get back the crosses better be gone, hear?” In his wake, the front door swayed like a drunk man dancing.
Junior washed the dishes under the spigot. He cupped his hands and caught the water tumbling down. The small pool reflected the moon until it escaped between his fingers.
He brought the dishes inside. Their mother was still sitting at the table, holding the crucifix. He found Tike in the bedroom and halted by the door. She met his eyes. He joined her on her bed and took the pair of scissors out of her hands. Her braid lay severed in her lap.
“You want to go to bed?” he asked softly.
She shook her head.
“Sit up with Mom?”
She got to her feet.
The children kept their mother company as the gas lantern burned on. Tike got out the crank radio. Hymns of static warded off the silence. She was the first to fall asleep despite her best efforts. Their mother stared straight ahead as though waiting for a signal to change. Outside the wind howled its perpetual howl. One day the house is going to get lifted off its foundation, Junior thought sleepily. It’ll spin the first mile up but we’re bound to level out. We’ll settle up on the clouds and drift all over the world.
“I can’t take you with me,” said a wisp of cloud resembling his mother. “I’ll come back for you and your sister.”
When Junior awoke, he was alone at the table. Tike stood by the door, crowned by morning. He put an arm around her shoulders. “Mom leave for work?”
Tike stared out at the empty miles.
Nathaniel Kressen is the author of two novels – Dahlia Cassandra (published June 2016) and Concrete Fever (Bestseller, Strand Book Store). His work can be found at nathanielkressen.com and secondskinbooks.com.
Photograph by Jessie T. Kressen, taken from Dahlia Cassandra.