Archive for September, 2011

The Home Place, Part 2

September 13, 2011


I had seen beaten men before, and it was plain that one sat beside me now.
Exactly what Hal had lost, I wasn’t sure, but it chilled me to the bone to see this anvil of a man beaten into impotent grief.

“Hey, what’s the matter? You’re not leveling with me,” I said, gripping his upper arm and trying to look him in the eye. I had not seen Hal cry half dozen times in all our growing-up years: it was scaring the hell out of me.

“I … I don’t want to go into it now, in front of the kids,” he managed to stammer in a poorly-controlled voice. Kip stood stock-still in the hall, his face a scared, stark question mark.

“Yeah … I understand. Hey, Kipper,” I said, turning to him, “do you think you could go in the den and look under the tree for a red package tied up with bright green ribbon? Get it and take it to Kris, so she can read the label and make sure your name is spelled right. Could you do that for me, partner?” Kip wandered doubtfully into the den, glancing back now and then at us as his dad and I sat beside each other, silently groping for words.

I cleared my throat. “So … maybe we should save this until after dinner?”

“Yeah, when we get the kids down for the night we’ll have some time to talk.”

“Just tell me this: is it you and Gail?”

“Oh, no, we’re … at least I think our marriage is okay.”

I felt the vise in my throat loosen a notch. I loved Gail like a sister. In fact, I guess she was the sister I had never had. She had seen me through the morass of puberty, giving big-sisterly advice about things Mom didn’t live long enough to tell me. I knew if it came down to it, I would have to put my emotional chips on my brother; I was just glad I didn’t have to make the choice.

“Okay, Hal, we’ll save it till later. But no more hedging. I want to know what’s going on. Got it?”
He nodded his head as he swiped a massive forearm across his eyes. “Yeah … it’ll be good to get it off my chest.”

We stood there for a couple of minutes while Hal got his face straight. I listened to the sounds of the household: Gail bustling in the kitchen, clanging pans and utensils; two of the kids fighting noisily about some inconsequential catastrophe; the sound of a game show on the television no one was watching. And I thought maybe I didn’t want to know whatever it was I would find out after dinner. I wasn’t sure I could deal with a tragedy striking so close to the center of what was precious to me. Hal was a sort of gravity for me. He was the farm and my childhood distilled into flesh—a human lodestone.

He sniffed and blinked rapidly, struggling to regain a façade of control. He straightened up and we walked into the den, arms around each others’ shoulders. We talked around the lumps in our throats until Gail called us to the table.

Dinner was a minuet of harmless conversation, accompanied by the uninhibited obbligato of the kids’ stream-of-consciousness jabber. Jimmy, the oldest, wanted to know how long I’d had the sports car, how fast would it run, did I get any tickets on the way here, and he made all A’s this quarter. Kris, the classic middle child, picked at her food, giggled, and got repeatedly grossed out by Kip’s clowning with his entree. Gail alternately dealt discipline and glanced back and forth between Hal and me, sensing the silences between words, feeling the presence of the invisible guest at the table.

It announced its presence in unanswered glances, in half-sighs falling feebly into silences which should have been filled by robust, chaotic, vigorous talk of family and the season and the crops. Not for the world would I broach any subject which might spill the wrenching pain of my brother’s grief out onto the table. But how could I know what raw nerve I might strike with the most innocuous reference? It was like walking on glass shards, barefooted and at night and without a flashlight.

So I answered questions, talked to the kids, and complimented the food that I barely tasted. For some reason, a line from a song kept running through my head like a litany. It was a song we used to sing in church: “Troublesome times are here / filling men’s hearts with fear … ”

With dinner eaten, and the children shooed down the hall to begin stalling bedtime, we shuttled the dishes by degrees to the side of the sink, then went into the den and sat down in the glow of a dying fire. Hal and I looked at each other with bleeding eyes until he glanced down, looked at Gail, cleared his throat and, after several false starts, hoarsely gasped, “I’m losing the farm, Frank.”

(To be continued)

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

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