A Storyby Morgan Talty
The snowy graveyard looked to be burning. Gray branches swayed like smoke against dark pines. The farther I got down the hard dirt path, the more I wanted the smoke to be real, wanted to see the place engulfed in flames, so the matter between Mom and Frick would be settled.
They’d been going at it when I left in the late afternoon. Well, they’d been going at it for eight years, but that afternoon they fought about the headstone. Frick had said the graveyard needed to go, that the one and only headstone needed to be ripped out and smashed, that we needed to bring back the old way.
“What old way?” Mom had said, and Frick tried to remember, or tried to summon some answer that sounded good, but he’d been drinking too much. He was a medicine man who had been forgetting to pray in the mornings and at nights, forgetting to feed the spirits once a month. “That headstone will stay forever,” Mom said, and Frick looked at me, then at Mom.
“I wonder what will stay longer,” Frick said. “Me or that headstone.”
That was what made Mom run to the bathroom and cry privately. That was what made Frick get another drink. And the whole thing was what made me grab the slingshot my father had sent up for my eleventh birthday—the slingshot Frick hated and called the “little white-boy toy”—and go on down to the graveyard to shoot at the headstone, as if all our problems weren’t buried cold below but were actually right there on the surface, facing us all.
The headstone was a solid mass of black granite, no engravings. It was rounded at the top like a little door, and it leaned a bit to the left, not unlike the door to our house, whose foundation had shifted over the years. For a while, I fired at that crooked headstone, the slingshot’s rubber pull cracking in the cold, and I worried I’d snap it, but I had to let those balls fly. I missed maybe ten times before I found my groove and couldn’t miss, kept blasting one after the other until the metal balls were gone. I tried to find them in the snow around the headstone, but they were buried. The stone had not one dent in it.
I made my way back home, and our house’s chimney smoke coiled into the sky.
Inside, Frick was still sitting at the kitchen table, face hard, his hand wrapped around the same cup of wine he’d been drinking when I left. He stared up the hallway at Mom, who came out of her bedroom—or maybe he had been staring up that straight hallway, and he seemed to look only at her because there she was, eyes bloodshot, swollen. Mom went to the kitchen sink and started on the dishes, a few of which we’d eaten pasta and eggs off of last week.
“What’s for dinner?” I said, hoping the answer could put us back together for just a moment.
But before Mom could speak, Frick said, “Whatever you killed with that slingshot.”
He wouldn’t look at me and stayed staring at Mom. I remember wanting to say it was just a graveyard, just a headstone, but I felt it was more than that.
Frick looked over his shoulder at me, looked at my empty hands. “Not even a chipmunk?” When he laughed his double chin popped out, revealing his wine-red teeth.
“Leave him be,” Mom said.
A chipmunk diet would be good for you, I thought, and right as the thought smoked out of my brain, Frick rose in a way that made Mom and me look at him, like he was about to take the slingshot from my hands and throw it away or set ablaze a darker, unforgettable thing.
His hair was unbraided, the way it always was when he started drinking early. “I’m going to check on camp,” he said.
Mom didn’t say anything while he laced up his boots. I turned on the TV in the living room. I didn’t hear the back door close, but I heard his truck start and groan. For a while, I heard the sink still running, and Frick’s truck was still grumbling in place in the driveway. I wondered why he hadn’t left yet, and so I looked through the living room window at the truck. Mom was standing at the driver’s-side window, looking sorry. Over my shoulder, in the kitchen, drops of water dotted the linoleum from the sink to the open back door.
Finally, with Mom hanging from the window, Frick backed the truck up and yanked her along with him until Mom let go and fell to the ground. On her knees, she was crying and watching him as he put the truck in drive and pulled away.
For as long as she stayed on the ground I stayed at the window and watched. Two cars drove by, and each time the driver gave my mother a passing glance. When she finally got up, she wiped her hands on her jeans and then wiped her eyes, and she came down the driveway. She must have seen me there watching her from the window, but she acted as if she didn’t, and when she came in the house she went right back to the sink without a word or a sniffle.
Mom finished the dishes and then she cooked. Moose meat, peas, and boxed couscous from the food pantry. When the food steamed from the sideboard, Mom made herself a plate and set it next to the microwave for later. She still didn’t say one word, and it looked like she still had tears buried somewhere in her, her eyes were that puffy.
At the kitchen table, I blew on my hot food, but I hoped it’d stay hot forever because I wasn’t hungry. I turned in the chair and looked at Mom wiping down the sideboard.
“Mumma?” I said. She didn’t look at me, and I recall needing her to look at me.
“Mumma?” I said again.
“What, gwus?” She sprayed the counter with cleaning solution.
Ever since I’d met Frick, ever since he’d moved in those eight years back, I always felt his anger or passive-aggressiveness was due to my existence. And while I could often combat that feeling with Mom’s happiness, with her cooing over me or her comforting reassurance about whatever childlike anxiety I had about some issue, some worry, her complete distance that day left me too alone. But if I had known that that was growing up, I wouldn’t have asked: “Is he mad at me?”
Mom’s reaction didn’t settle me. She burst out crying again and didn’t even try to hide it. The last time Mom cried twice in one day was when my sister lost her child. No, she cried twice in one day too when my sister had up and gone, leaving behind only a note that read she’d lost something and that she was off to find it.
I stood up, nauseated. I asked her what I had done.
She came over and sat me back down with wet hands. “You didn’t do anything. Just eat.”
That she looked at me was enough to calm me. Still, I wasn’t hungry, at least not for food. Mom finished the sideboard and went to her bedroom. When her door clicked shut, I took my food, covered it, and set it next to the microwave by Mom’s.
I fell asleep on the couch with the TV on mute, and I woke up in my bed. It was around dawn, and a pale-pink light glowed outside, lighting my bedroom. Hushed voices came down the hallway from the kitchen.
“You’re going to have to tell him, doos,” the voice said. It was Grammy.
“He’ll leave if I tell him,” Mom said.
“Good,” Grammy said. “He’s no good.”
“He is good. Just recently he’s been not good.”
I didn’t know about the just recently part, but the rest was true: Frick had gotten meaner ever since he stopped being a part-time medicine man and started drinking full-time.
Grammy coughed. “You’re going to have to tell him,” she said. “When he comes back, you say it. You can’t have children. And then you go from there.”
“Miracles can happen,” Mom said. “But I just don’t want to risk what happened before.”
“Doos,” Grammy said. “You can’t have children. Face it. You tell him that, and that’s the end of the discussion.”
“He’ll leave,” Mom said. “He will.”
“Are you forgetting you have a son?” Grammy said. “And a daughter?”
“A daughter,” Mom said. “I almost forgot.”
“She’s her own person,” Grammy said. “And a grown woman. She can do and go as she pleases.”
“Exactly,” Mom said. “She’s a grown woman. Frick wants us to have our own.”
“Michigun,” Grammy said. “He wants a dark baby all for himself. That’s what those western Natives always want—dark babies. Pass me that ashtray.”
Mom didn’t say anything.
“Go ahead,” Grammy said. “Don’t believe me.”
A chair squeaked against the floor.
“I told you what I can,” Grammy said. “You have to figure the rest out.”
“You’re not staying?” Mom said.
“I have to go to church,” Grammy said. The back door opened. “Doosis,” Grammy said. “Something smells funny in here.”
“It’s probably that garbage,” Mom said.
“No, no,” Grammy said. “It smells fishy.”
“I don’t smell anything like that,” Mom said.
I took a whiff in my room, and I agreed—I didn’t smell anything.
“I don’t know, then,” Grammy said, and as she left she repeated to Mom that she should tell Frick, and when Mom thought she was all alone she said it again: “I don’t want to risk it.”
Risk what? Children? Is that why Frick didn’t seem to like me, because I wasn’t his?
I got out of bed. From the hallway I watched Mom at the kitchen table sipping hot coffee. I went to the bathroom, and when I came out to the kitchen, all that remained at the table was the coffee and a freshly snubbed-out cigarette that still smoldered in the ashtray.
I knocked on her bedroom door.
“I’m sick,” Mom said. “Go watch TV.”
I turned the TV on, but I didn’t watch it. I picked up the phone and dialed Dad’s number.
It rang once and only once and he answered right away, eager to talk to me like always with his “Hey, buddy!” and I didn’t even let him say his “How’s my buddy today?” before I asked him why Mom didn’t want to risk having another baby, why Grammy said Mom couldn’t.
“What?” he said.
“Why can’t she?” I said.
“Put your mother on the phone,” Dad said.
I looked up the hallway to Mom’s room, and her door opened.
“Who are you talking to?” Mom said.
“Dad,” I said.
“Is that your mother?” Dad said. “Put her on.”
“Hang that phone up and come here,” Mom said.
“Let me talk to her, David,” Dad said.
I hung up.
Mom came down the hallway. “What did you ask him?”
“Why you can’t have babies,” I said.
“That’s none of your business,” Mom said. “That’s nobody’s business but my own.”
To be a child is to think the whole world revolves around you, and so maybe that’s why I took the phone and slammed it down on the table three times and yelled that it was my business, that if Frick wants his own but if there is only me then he’s going to keep hating me and you and this place. “No one’s ever going to be happy,” I said. To be a child is to sometimes know the truth.
The refrigerator hummed, and the kitchen light buzzed. The phone rang. Mom answered it and then immediately hung it up.
Mom’s knees cracked when she sat down on the floor, and she pulled me shaking onto her lap.
“We’ll all be happy,” she said. “Every single one of us.”
I looked at her, but she turned away from me and stared at the back door. And so did I. From the angle I was at in my mother’s arms the door looked straight, like no foundation had shifted over the years, and I believed her—believed that I’d be happy, that she’d be happy, that Dad would be happy, that even Frick would be happy—and that I believed all that made it feel attainable, even if it was only for those brief minutes in my mother’s arms before she stood me up and I saw dead-on again that our door was crooked.
After that first day when Frick left, Mom hadn’t cried once. She ate dinner every night with me at the kitchen table, and two nights in a row she dug out the game Monopoly, which we didn’t play properly and instead took wads of colored money and walked around the house pretending we were at Tiffany & Co.
A week went by, a week in which happiness seemed to course through our veins like blood, but since then I’ve come to think that it wasn’t happiness but instead numbness. At least for Mom. On a Thursday, I came home from school and Mom wasn’t home. And she wasn’t home when night spilled over like ink, and so I heated up leftover rice and chicken and stared at the mess of food on the plate until midnight. When Mom still didn’t come home, I set the food in the fridge and I stayed up all night, waiting, sometimes sitting in the living room, sometimes going outdoors and sitting on the cold concrete steps.
By the time the sun came up, I felt like I had to get ready, had to start the day, had to go on. I showered, dressed, ate cornflakes, brushed my teeth, but when the school bus stopped in front of the house, I stood at the back door, hand on the knob, not able to go, not able to pull open the crooked door, and eventually the bus pulled away, its white fumes thick like cotton in the cold air.
After the bus was gone, I opened the door, heading to the only place I thought had answers: the maintenance garage where Frick worked part-time for the tribe. I knew he’d be there. During the cold months, he was paid to sit around in the maintenance garage and sip water from the water cooler. His duties during the warm months were to mow the tribal buildings’ lawns and weed-whack the tall grasses growing around all the chain-link fences surrounding the Island school and the graveyards. But it was the end of winter, and so he had nothing to do but shoot the shit with the guys in the garage and wait for the snow to melt.
I sprinted the whole way there and only slowed when the garage came into view, men sitting in metal folding chairs away from where ice dripped water from the garage’s roof, each sipping coffee or water in little cups. They all looked at me when I got close, and then one of them yelled to Frick.
“Your boy’s here,” a man said.
I didn’t go any closer, not wanting to talk to anyone but Frick, and when Frick came out he stayed back like he didn’t want to talk to me.
“Why ain’t you in school?” he said.
“Mom’s gone,” I said. “Since yesterday she’s been gone. I don’t know what to do.”
He looked at me and then at the ground, then looked behind him at the garage, at all the men who had gone back to talking and sipping their drinks.
“Come on,” he said, and he started for his truck.
He didn’t say anything, just started driving, and I thought he was taking me to school but we drove right past the long tan-brick building and red playgrounds. He wasn’t driving fast—Frick never did, was always so careful on the road—and at each street he slowed, looking, and finally I realized he wasn’t taking me anywhere. He was looking for my mother, and I got this feeling that he felt bad for something.
We checked every road on the Island, and then Frick parked his truck on the bridge to Overtown, the river flowing under us, carrying ice sheets toward the dam. Even in the warm truck I was cold.
We stayed on the bridge until lunch, and we didn’t speak one word to each other until my stomach rumbled.
“Let’s go eat,” he said, and then he put the truck in drive and drove over the bridge. He took a right—there was nothing to the right except camp, so that was where we were going. I hadn’t been there since I was ten, since the time Frick had made me put a bullet in a rabbit’s head that hadn’t even turned fully white, this little thing in between changes, in between something larger than simple molting, simple brown to white.
Like all camp roads, the one to Frick’s was bumpy, jagged, the dirt solidified like a rough sea frozen. The road was straight, but then it curved, and once the curve was turned, the road went straight again, and another curve popped up—there was a never-ending feeling to the road, like the ocean. And the road only ever ended when the camp—unfinished, a blue plastic bucket upside down to step on to get through the yard-high door, the inside walls pink cotton candy insulation—appeared unexpectedly and stood wrapped by pine trees, smokeless.
Except right then it wasn’t smokeless. The chimney bellowed out clouds that disappeared among the tall oaks and pines. Parked next to the camp was Mom’s white Toyota.
“Found her,” Frick said, and when he parked his truck he rubbed his eyes. “Shit,” he said.
When I got out of the truck, so did Frick. He put his hands on his waist, waiting. The camp door opened, and Mom looked at Frick.
She held square Kodak pictures. “What are these?”
“None of your business,” Frick said. “Put them back, take your son, and go.”
Mom stepped down on the blue bucket and then onto the ground. “Who is this?” Mom said. She pointed at the picture. It was a girl, no older than I was. A shawl was draped over her shoulders. She was dancing.
Frick stepped closer to Mom, grabbed her wrist, and twisted.
I yelled louder than Mom, and then I ran full force to try and shove Frick, but he used my momentum and pulled me past him so I flew onto the ground.
Mom got up, and then got me up. She pulled me to the car.
Frick picked the pictures off the ground, wiped them, and then stepped up onto the bucket and went into the camp.
“It’s my daughter,” Frick said, and he shut the camp door.
Mom drove fast over the bumpy dirt road.
“I’m sorry I left you,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I said, even though it wasn’t. “Where’d you go?”
Mom was silent, which meant she didn’t want me to know.
“He helped me look for you,” I said. “I didn’t know where else to go, so I went to the garage. He helped me look for you.”
“Nice of him,” Mom said. She drove with her knee and rubbed her wrist.
When we finally got to the end of the camp road, Mom pulled a U-turn on Route 1 and pulled back onto the road we’d just left. “He’s going to talk,” Mom said, not to me, not to anybody. “Yeah, he’s going to talk.”
Mom parked behind Frick’s truck. She told me to stay. She balanced on the blue bucket while she shimmied her food-stamp card in between the latch and door frame, and when the door swung open Frick was right there and he pulled her in. But there was no noise. Neither screamed or yelled. I rolled down the window, the cool creeping in, and I tried to listen for their fighting. Nothing, so I got out of the car and sat on the hood. The faint smell of rotting guts rolled out from the small shed where Frick skinned his kills. I turned away, and no noise came from the camp. Nothing was banging, rattling, smashing in the way Mom sometimes got. And Frick wasn’t saying his, “Come on, now! Just come on!” There was none of that. Crows cawed somewhere off in the trees. The little stream down past the camp dripped by. The hood under which I sat dinged. The immense quiet was uncomfortable, and I wished that they would yell, or that something would crash.
Frick opened the camp door. “Go,” he said. “Just go.”
Mom had one foot on the bucket and the other still in the camp. “I didn’t know that,” she said. “Frick, I didn’t know that.”
“Now you do,” he said.
“You can talk to me,” Mom said. “You can talk to me.”
“Talk to you about what?”
“I know what that loss is like,” she said.
“No, you don’t,” Frick said, and he pushed the door shut but Mom pushed back.
“Goddamn it,” she said.
The door stayed open between them.
“I do know what it feels like,” she said. “Like the whole world is warped, like something is off balance that will never be balanced again. And guess what? It won’t ever be balanced again. Every morning’s deformed, the day so close to spinning out of control, but you have to find your footing, your own balance.”
“Well maybe you’re throwing off my balance,” he said. “You ever think of that?”
“Listen,” she said. “You need to understand I can’t give you what you want. And even if I could, it wouldn’t fix anything. I know that.”
Mom looked at me and then at Frick.
“Why can’t you?” Frick said. “I just want to know.”
Mom stepped off the bucket. “You want to know?” she said. “You really, really want to know?” She started for the car. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll show you why.”
And Frick started to follow, stepped down off the blue bucket and onto the ground. I was at the car door, opening it, and then Frick stood still.
“He’s hungry,” Frick said, nodding his head at me.
“I can wait,” I said. I remember feeling ourselves closing in on something, something important, some unnamable thing that like a jointer could straighten the boards upon which we walked.
But Frick insisted, and I felt he pulled us away from it. He’d already turned back to the camp door, stepped up on the bucket, and pulled himself up.
“He has to eat,” he said. He stood in the camp by the door, waiting for us to follow, and when we did—Mom first and then me—he closed the door.
Frick boiled fiddleheads and sautéed salted pork on the gas stove, and while the fat sizzled and the water gurgled and the window screen next to the table where Mom and I sat whistled in the sharp wind, a pipe banging somewhere underneath the cabin, our silences rested deep amid the noise of cooking and breathing.
“Corinne was thirteen,” Frick said. His back was to us while he cooked. “She was like David,” he said. “Hated hunting. Wouldn’t talk to me when I brought back deer or elk or moose or geese or swan. Especially swan. Only hunted it once.” Frick laughed. “She told me and her mother that she wouldn’t eat meat, that she heard of other ways that didn’t include death. Where would a six-year-old hear that?” Frick laughed again, stirring the fiddleheads.
He cleared his throat. “We were on Rosebud then, and it was a few weeks after her mother disappeared.”
Frick flipped over the salted pork and it seared and smoked.
“I was guiding nonmembers on hunts, and Corinne was with me full-time. One afternoon, I was supposed to take out this guy, Charlie, that was his name—I’ll never forget it—but Charlie didn’t show, which wasn’t unusual. Those white guys were always jerking us around. They’d get their permits to hunt on tribal land, but then they wouldn’t show.
“So Corinne was out there with me, waiting, freezing. Absolutely freezing. It was raining, so the dirt roads in the woods were mud and slick. We waited in my truck for Charlie to show, and an hour passed. I wanted to hunt, but Corinne was shivering, even with the heater on. It was like she couldn’t get warm. Maybe it was her mother having disappeared.”
Frick drained the water from the fiddleheads and then dumped them into a large metal bowl. He salted them, and then he put the salt back in the crooked cupboard and he pulled out vinegar and drizzled it over the steaming fiddleheads. The salted pork was sizzling slow, hardening.
Mom’s cigarette smoke wandered toward me.
“I was mad,” Frick said. “Damn mad. I wanted to hunt, but Corinne was there, shivering. Kids don’t always know everything, don’t know how hard it is to make enough money to buy food instead of hunting. And we were low on both—money and food.”
The pork began to burn, smoke, hazing the camp, and Frick kept flipping each piece over and over.
“I should’ve hunted. I should’ve killed more time. But I only had my 9mm with me—it was the gun I carried when I guided—and I got out of the truck and sprayed every bullet I had into the rain and sky and then I reloaded twice, ran through two clips in thirty seconds.”
Frick dumped the salted pork into the fiddlehead bowl. He mixed it up with his hands, like a salad.
If it weren’t for my mother’s smoking, I would have forgotten she was here. She got up from the table and went to Frick. He fluffed the fiddleheads and salted pork together, and Mom held her cigarette out to him, and he took a drag from it. Then one more. Mom came back to the table.
“It’s funny,” Frick said, blowing smoke. “The things you remember, the things that come to you throughout the day. Little things. The tiny details like the mud and bullet casings and the rain and the guy’s name you were supposed to be guiding out there on a hunt, out there to kill. That was why I had to leave Rosebud, because I’d kill him, even though he didn’t deserve it.
“You see, he did show up, but he was late—way late—and we were leaving. If someone’s an hour late why think they’d show up? Even Indians know better, with all that Indian time crap. Corinne had fallen asleep—she’d crawled down below her seat and was tucked right against the blower motor. I drove slow, because the dirt road was long and wet and slippery. Halfway down that road there was a sharp curve. I took it quick all the time, had one of them spinners clamped on the steering wheel, used to crank right around that turn—no matter how mad Corinne was, she always laughed at that, made me turn around two, three times to do it again.”
Frick used both hands to set the bowl of fiddleheads and salted pork on the table. His face glossed and shined. He went to the cupboard and grabbed three bowls and three cups.
“But that dirt road was narrow,” Frick said. “I was going slow, but Charlie wasn’t.”
Frick sat down. He looked at me, looked at Mom, and shook his head. And then he stopped shaking his head and started to nod, like he’d come to some conclusion, some agreement that could only be made with himself and the details.
“She was sleeping,” he said. And then again, “She was sleeping.”
Frick took my bowl and filled it high, then he set the bowl in front of me. Then he filled Mom’s bowl, and then his own. I held the bowl, warming both my hands. Frick scanned the table, looking for something, and his looking made me look too, made me think that what we were looking for was important, so important, and we were both searching for it together, looking sometimes at each other and then back at the table, trying to learn if something was missing or was in fact right there at the table with us.
It was Mom who figured it out.
“I’ll get them,” she said, and she went to the drawer by the sink and got three forks.
In the evening, after Frick fed the spirits—down there by the shallow stream, under the gray-blue sky, mumbling a prayer he’d never let me hear—Frick’s truck wouldn’t start, and so we left it there with the locked-up camp and drove back in Mom’s car, Mom driving, Frick in the passenger seat. I leaned my head against the cold window.
“I don’t need to know why,” Frick said to Mom. He watched the trees go by as we drove down the dirt road.
“But you do,” Mom said. “I’ll show you tomorrow.”
“Show me what?” Frick asked.
But Mom just said, “Tomorrow.” She drove with both hands on the steering wheel, and she went slow, and rightfully so. When we hit Route 1, I realized no one was going to speak, just sit and ride, and I wondered what Mom would show us. I wondered about tomorrow.
When we were almost home, riding over the bridge to the Island, I sensed that even though their problems were their own, there was still no escaping how those problems shaped us all, no escaping the end, like the way the ice melts in the river each spring, overflowing and creeping up the grassy banks and over lawns, reaching farther and farther toward the houses until finally the water touches stone, a gentleness before the river converges on the foundation, seeping inside and flooding basements, insulation swelling, drying only when the water has receded. What remains is a smell, a reminder that the water has come and risen up and will rise again, in time. I would never forget that car ride or that night at home: because we all found that smell, literally, and it was not subtle.
“What is that?” Mom said. We smelled it before we got indoors, and when we were indoors, the stench was so terrible that we were laughing as we stood just barely in the house. “Oh, my God, what is that?”
Frick walked around the house in his boots, looking for the smell. “Holy Jesus,” he said.
“Smells like chagook,” Mom said, and she looked in the garbage, took a big whiff, and shook her head. “David,” she said. “Did the house smell this morning?”
“Not really,” I said, covering my nose. “It smelled like it always does.”
“Christ,” Frick said, and he looked at us at the kitchen table. Then he squatted, put his nose to the floor, and smelled.
I laughed, and so did Mom.
“What’s funny?” Frick said. He smelled another part of the floor, following something.
“You’re smelling the floor,” Mom said. She had her hand over her nose.
“And?” Frick said.
“And you look ridiculous,” Mom said.
Frick wasn’t laughing. He was smelling the floor, and Mom and I watched him crawl up the hallway on all fours, sniffing like a dog. He made it down the hall and sniffed the closet. Then he opened the door, and kept sniffing, stuck his head between hanging clothes.
Mom was cracking up, and in between laughs she started to gag, and when she gagged, I gagged, and then Frick said, “Don’t,” and he started gagging. He got up off the floor and dry-heaved in the bathroom.
“The hell’s a matter with you two?” he said. We were still laughing, and for a second he looked to smile, but then he gagged again.
He took a deep breath. “I’ll be back,” he said. He grabbed a flashlight from under the sink, and he went out the door and around back of the house.
Mom and I stopped laughing when we heard him under the house, crawling about, cursing. When he stopped moving, we listened, and the silence was broken by one giant gag, and Mom and I started up again, banging our hands on the table.
“Listen to him!” Mom said.
I was laughing hard, but not at Frick: Mom was hysterical, tears coming down her face, and she was hyperventilating, trying to catch her breath, and her laughter made me laugh.
“And to think—” Mom laughed so hard she wasn’t making noise, was shaking in the chair. The phone rang and she hung it up. “And to think I clean this place every day! What’s the point! Shit just creeps right in! Tend a nice house, my mother always said. What does she know! Oh, God, it stinks.” She stood up. “It stinks so bad.”
The phone rang again, and Mom let it go to voice mail.
“Shh, shh,” Mom said, a finger to her mouth, stifling her laughter. We listened as the voice mail spoke the caller’s message.
“Yeah, it would be nice if someone WOULD CALL ME BACK!” Click.
“Your poor father!” Mom said, and she exploded with laughter. “If only he could smell it!”
Mom rose from the table and went outside, and I followed, wiping tears from my eyes, and in the silent cold we stood in the driveway, waiting for Frick.
Mom started up again. A slow laugh at first, then it built and climbed up higher and higher—she couldn’t stop. I didn’t find it funny anymore—she looked like she was about to collapse.
Frick came from out back and stepped into the porch light. He held out and away from him something large and oval like a saucer sled. It dripped, and the smell came right at us again stronger than in the house.
“Found it,” Frick said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A snapping turtle,” Frick said. It was decomposing, rotting from inside its shell. “Must’ve crawled up there and died. How it got in, don’t know.”
“It died in our house!” Mom said. She was breaking—it was that kind of laughter. “The house killed it!”
“You all right?” Frick said, and he brought the turtle to the side of the shed and dropped it into the hard snow.
I looked at Mom: she leaned on the car and shook and shielded her eyes with her hand like a light somewhere was blinding her. And then the laughter turned to tears and she cried hard, the kind of hard tears you laughed at after.
“What’s a matter?” Frick said. He moved closer.
“It’s dead,” Mom said.
“Way dead,” Frick said, and he nodded at me to go inside. He pulled Mom from the hood of the car, and followed after me into the house, where he guided Mom down the hallway and into her room and put her to bed.
The house still smelled. Not a little—a lot. It reeked, but it smelled better than standing outside while Frick held the rotting turtle in front of us.
Frick took a shower, and when he came out I smelled the sweet shampoo.
“Goodnight, David,” he said from the hallway, and I heard Mom’s door click shut. In the quiet, I looked at the clock, but I couldn’t see the time. I spread out on the couch, wondering how deep we’d all rest, wondering, again, about tomorrow.
In the morning, Frick cooked breakfast. Fried eggs, moose meat. Mom made biscuits and gravy. The sun burned bright, and the sky was a crystal blue. The house smelled a bit of the turtle, but it was hard to distinguish between it and the cooking and wood smoke.
Mom and Frick joked about the turtle while they made breakfast together. I sat at the kitchen table. My chest was feeling heavy, a pressure building up—the beginning of a cold.
“I thought you were done for,” Frick said. “The way you were laughing.”
“I don’t even remember seeing the turtle,” Mom said. “Was it big?”
Frick turned, eggs splattering. “You want to see it?”
“No way,” Mom said. Then she turned to me. “David,” she said. “Take this knife and go get some turtle meat. It’ll go good in the gravy.”
I smiled a little. My chest hurt, and I had to cough, and I did, and Mom heard the cold.
“You sick, gwus?” she said.
“I’m all right,” I said. “A cold.”
“That don’t sound good,” Frick said. He turned to Mom. “You want to finish cooking this? I’ll make him tea.”
Frick mixed honey and lemon juice in a mug with hot water. “When you finish it,” Frick said, “don’t cough. Just hold it down, let the tea settle.”
I sipped the tea while Frick set the table.
At some point during breakfast, Mom said, “Today. After we eat.”
When we finished, both Mom and Frick cleared the table, and Mom told me to get ready. I put on jeans and a T-shirt. I felt hot.
“Put a jacket on,” Mom told me before we left the house.
I followed her and Frick out the back door and into the day and onto the briny asphalt. I went to the car, but Mom said no, that we were walking there.
We walked to the end of the road together, and then onto the bumpy brown path.
“I don’t go up there often,” Mom said.
“Where?” Frick said.
“The graveyard,” Mom said.
Frick stopped walking. “Do you really have something to show me,” he said, and he spit. “Or does this have something to do with what I said, about ripping that headstone out? You know,” he said, pointing at her, “you would bring this back up. You wouldn’t just leave it be. You want me to say I’m sorry? Is that it? Come on, now.”
“No,” Mom said. “Well, maybe. I’m just trying to show you that I know what loss feels like.”
I was hot, burning—couldn’t speak on the road to the graveyard.
Mom sat down on a fallen oak, the river thawing at her back. She looked at Frick and told him a story I never knew existed. I listened as best I could, the heat of my body radiating so hard that it took my attention. It was like my vision was narrowed, a pinhole looking outward at the passing of experience.
I heard her say there should have been two, that they were healthy for the whole time, but after he, me, after he came out, the other one, the other one wasn’t whole, was just a tumor with hair and teeth sprouting out.
Frick had taken off his jacket and put it over my shoulders, which reminded me I was there, with them.
“The tumor spread throughout me,” Mom said. “That’s what they said, the doctors—he’d spread throughout me.” Mom laughed. “And my mother, my mother wouldn’t let the doctors keep the tumor. Her convenient Indian came out, said it was improper to dispose of it the way they were going to. A few weeks after the hysterectomy, my mother and I came up here. The church wouldn’t bury the child, so we did. The headstone was already there. Maybe that’s why I go up there sometimes, to see if it’s still there, to make sure no one other than him has been buried under it. And maybe that’s why what you said upset me.”
Ice scraped against the riverbank, and out in the middle of the river an ice sheet cracked and echoed downriver.
“So I can’t give you what you want,” Mom said. “It’s impossible.”
I coughed up mucus and spit it out.
“Let’s get you home,” Mom said to me. She put her hand to my forehead.
Mom guided me down the road, and Frick followed. We’d not go to the graveyard—we’d all been there before, and we’d all be there again: Frick, when he had to work after the snow melted; me, when I ran out of metal balls for the slingshot and knew where to find some, scattered there in the mud; and Mom, when she went to say hello, or good-bye.
We emerged out from under the thick dark pines that shrouded the path we just walked, the path that led to a place we’d never return to, but that was the point. Up the hill, our chimney smoke rose up in quiet plumes before dispersing into a flat gray haze against the hard blue sky. Down our driveway, Mom covered her nose, the turtle decomposing on the side of the shed. I couldn’t smell anything. My nose was stuffed up. We’ll all be happy, I thought, even if it’s for just a moment.
Frick stayed outside. He tied a bandanna around his face so as to cover his nose, and he began to gut the turtle, planned to keep the shell. I watched him through the kitchen window as he dug his blade into the turtle’s opening, scraped out the insides.
Mom made me another tea and set it on the kitchen table. The phone rang and she answered it, said hello, and then handed me the phone.
“How’s my buddy today?” Dad said. I sipped the tea—steam swirling and warming my face, and over the rim of the mug I saw Frick through the window gutting and scraping and gagging—and I told Dad his buddy was good. A little sick, but his buddy was good.