The land is not flat, only life is that — flat. So flat that the eye only sees ahead to the horizon and not the treacherous and bone splitting pits so artfully disguised as endlessness. The land, however, slopes and curves and early in the morning the mist in the low areas hides thick and white from the sun. The glorious morning sun illuminates the very heart of each and every tree and reflects upon every insect and particle in the air, while in the evening that same sun is not so intrusive; it elongates shadows and hides the doe and her yearling in the twilight shades of dying day. The land, unlike life, hides predictably but we stay ignorant and treat the land like life.
So at night I hear Lake Superior sing its shore sounds not far from my back door. I also hear the wolf pack howl in praise of another night alive under the stars.
Aside from that there is not much else to do around here but go to church and the bar, (not bars – there is only one bar where I live). My dad went to the same bar for years and he died getting off the bar stool that I make a point of sitting on when I go now, for my sip of sherry. Joe said he died in the parking lot but Mike said he died right there in the middle of the floor sorta kickin’ and turnin’ purple. I figured Dad would die pissed off. I sit on the same bar stool and order sherry. First time I ordered sherry Joe sorta smiled.
“Not the hard stuff like your old man huh?”
“What you doin’ here anyway?” Joe asked.
I shrugged. Dad left me everything – everything by accident. The acres of land that his Dad bequeathed him only because his Dad did the same; all came to me. Dad left me everything and the sound of Superior singing and the wolf pack that howls late at night. I think Dad figured he’d live a long time, just to be spiteful but he didn’t and all that money he was socking away, working for the state of Michigan, maintaining roads in the Upper Peninsula that only tourist use came to me also. And all the life insurance money that Mom thought she’d live to see, well that came to me too. I’m very careful with the money, nothing too opulent for me. That’s what Mom would say, “Nothing too opulent for me.”
Mom liked to read.
I remember my Mom younger than the day she died; younger with the sun shining on her brown hair, curly and soft against her neck. I see her in her best dress, pale yellow with a V-neck, simple and straight. She would sit in the old wooden chair next to my Dad, he asleep in a heap and she with a book in her lap, looking toward Superior. She could perhaps hear Superior in the daylight, I never could. I imagine her getting up with her pretty dress swaying about her thin form and walking toward Superior. In reality I don’t think she ever did such a thing.
The big lake I think always loved her, loved her with a soft, yet somehow hard passion toward the rest of us. There was a longing in my Mother’s face and a longing in the song I heard Superior sing. Perhaps that’s why she stayed in her seat and only listened. I think of her now walking the slopes and curves of the land, the morning mist parting for her and she at last walking to Superior. I wonder now if she didn’t stay for my sake.
Mom and I would dream about the little house we would have when Dad was gone. The floor to ceiling book cases, the little dormers in our bedrooms and plenty of windows to watch it snow during winter.
That was a bad day, me standing on the outside of her grave with Dad breathing heavy and stone cold sober beside me. That was a very bad day.
Two years later he was gone. I thought perhaps that would be the case, him dying because when Mom went he stayed longer at the bar and he was reprimanded at the job for being late. The union protected him; I heard others talking. The union men, they would talk in the bar that Joe and Mike owned. The only bar in a twenty-mile radius. It had a pool table shipped in from down below and it had mirrors behind the bar so people could watch people watch each other drink and play pool and dance slow and clumsy. There are no windows in the bar.
These men, these union men, seemed to understand my father’s suffering. The men, who with two days’ beard on them, would throw back a quick one, nod their sage heads and commiserate. Losin’ his wife that way – and his daughter not worth much. Only thing she could do was drive down and make sure he got home from the bar. But I didn’t care what they said or thought, I was worried he wouldn’t die with benefits, but he died in time.
After he died I took over his bar stool; I sip sherry and talk to Joe, sometimes Mike too. I walk the land to the shore of Superior, unlike Mom, I go when Superior sings.
Nobody else talks to me, they all pretend I’m not there. Some of the women would talk to me at first, they were a little older and wore too much makeup and were too thin but they would talk. Then they grew tired of me and started asking men to dance. I disappeared to them in time.
So I sip sherry on the same bar stool my dad fell off of while Joe tries to talk some sense into me; that I shouldn’t hang out in the bar while so much of life was goin’ on.
Joe has always been nice to me but never refused a whiskey and soda ordered up by my Dad. I think of that and study Joe’s face hard while he’s lecturing me in a kind way. I study the lines of his face and his pale blue eyes. I feel him grow uncomfortable under my gaze. So he talks more and faster.
Joe asked me if I have any plans to travel or maybe go away to school. He tells me about this time in the army and his trip to Vietnam. He asks how the construction of my new home is going – the home my Mother and I planned together for so many years. Joe tells me how lucky I am to have so much land and such a nice little brick house to live in, that Dad had really set me up, too bad my Mom died sort of young. I nod and sip my sherry.
Joe asked me one day, “why don’t you go home and get up in the morning and go to church, find some nice young man there and settle down?”
“Mom told me not to look for men in church,” I said sipping my sherry and maneuvering for a comfortable position, that I’ve yet to find, in my Dad’s old bar stool.
I could tell Joe was about to start laughing – and a part of me was sorry he didn’t. Perhaps at that time I might have started to fit in. If the regular crowd at last heart the bartender and I sharing a joke, maybe I wouldn’t be treated as an unwanted guest or like I was that cold shiver in everyone’s spine. But instead of laughing he paused and looked at me and his big blue eyes sorta got bigger and he said, “What?”
“Mom said that nice men at church have a funny notion about women and that I shouldn’t go there to look for men – I should go just to worship God.”
“So you do go to church?”
“And what do those men at church say about you coming to a bar?”
“They never ask.”
“What will you do when they do ask?”
I shrugged and looked away from Joe because no one would ask me. He didn’t understand that. Some people at church, they are very nice and call me and tell me if I need anything I should let them know. I try and get off the telephone with them as quickly as possible and I never hang around after church. They make me nervous when they are people and not a congregation singing or taking communion. They seem to me to treat God like a police officer. I don’t think they are sick but deep down lonely. They are like people in the bar, sort of; they talk to each other and not to God. They don’t notice how the sun in the morning shines and the sun in the evening hides those things living on the land.
I feel sorry for them because Jesus made things so hard for us and simple too. I like to think of Jesus talking to women; talking to His Mom and to the lady at the well and Jesus just staring at the prostitute at His feet. I think women made Jesus think of Superior singing; sort of sad, and wistful and sorry that things weren’t different or the way they should be.
“What are you thinking about?” Joe asked one night, a quiet, slow night.
“In a bar?”
And I smiled at Joe. The men at the bar really are no different than men in church. That was something I would have to tell Mom when I saw her again. There was Joe all gray and tired looking. He fought in the jungles and lived in Detroit for a while and he smoked pot when a kid. Did he think of God at all? Sure he did, he thought of God keeping score but not as someone to talk to.
“I was thinking about when Jesus told the crowds of men that they were all guilty of adultery when they thought of committing adultery.”
“He said that?”
“He’s okay though really – God I mean, because He sacrificed His own Son to get us off the hook.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
I watched Joe walk away. I had made him uncomfortable. I wanted to laugh out loud but I knew that people really wanted to burn me at the stake already – or put me away. There I was with all of my dead Dad’s money, staying in the middle of nowhere; dirt roads, tiny bar (not bars mind you – we have only one, one gas station and one paved road that the state of Michigan maintains) and thinking about Jesus in a bar and avoiding men at church and listening to Superior sing.
I imagine God’s own Son slapping His open palm up against His forehead and saying, “Are you kidding me? I made you. Talk to Me, discuss your desires with Me. I know you did your neighbor’s wife in your head while on top of your own wife.” I imagine men around Jesus looking about sort of sheepish and feeling sort of uncomfortable and then Jesus moving in with a zinger – “of course, your own wife was not mentally there because you’re all boring lovers. Yeah she told me.” Then they’d drag Him off and nail Him to a cross.
Joe’s wife left him several years ago and everyone knows why but nobody discusses it. To me it’s life as normal. Men push things aside and pretend they understand other men who outlive their wives or marry women who are never satisfied; women who think the landscape is romantic but can’t hear a song deep within Superior – that song that sings things aren’t what they ought to be.
My own Dad woke me up two days before he died. He woke me up rough and smelling of something awful. He told me to make him some coffee but I didn’t want to because after Mom would make him coffee, I would hear her crying in the bedroom. But he shook me again so I got up and made him coffee.
He sat at the old kitchen table and watched me. I felt like crying so I talked to God. I prayed using real words because I was very afraid. I went about mechanically putting the coffee together and felt my hands shaking and feeling really cold all over. Then I remembered sitting with my Mom the last time. She looked all swollen but she said she was in no real pain; she was smiling at me and started talking to me. “Debbie,” she said, “Debbie men of power do not want to save anyone. Men of power want dependency,” my Mom told me. “Jesus went through life so we could stand on rocks and part the Red Sea of loneliness, so we could raise our hands and win the battle of raising our children. He died on a cross and healed us of snake bites – even though the snakes bite us over and over again and never go away. We can live to run for our lives and meet God, that’ what Jesus did.”
I knew she was worried about me; I didn’t mind her talking about God. “Don’t worry about me Mom. Dad won’t live forever.”
“You build our little house, I’ll come and visit you.”
“I’ll build it.”
“If you want men to come, that’ll be okay – I suggest you don’t let them stay.”
“What will God say?”
“Find out when the two of you meet,” she said.
I only nodded at Mom. But when I stood there shivering in the kitchen, the very kitchen where Mom taught me of Jesus and God and I felt all the hate of a dying man grind into my back, I felt the thinnest of my entire life, paper thin and not so sure. I placed the coffee in front of Dad but didn’t look into his eyes. I went back to my bedroom.
I never stay until the bar closes; I just sit there until I really don’t want to anymore, maybe an hour or two. It’s funny because when I’m at the bar I think I just want to be in my nice quiet home where no one has lived except me and where I feel my Mom visit sometimes and hear the wolf pack and wait for Superior to sing.
He banged on my bedroom door, my Dad did and the door shook as if Satan himself was demanding entrance.
“Monday, I’m making sure you don’t get a dime missy – not a dime. You’ll finally work. The oldest work known to man – if you can get anyone stoned enough to pay for it. That’s three days away little Miss Debbie. It’s my way of making sure you won’t die a virgin – you’ll thank me later.”
Even in my terror I had to smile – I had already made sure I wouldn’t die a virgin and missed the sacred state immensely. In my terror I thought of that missed state and the young girl I was and the confusion I lived in. Now life was clear in the good and in the bad. My Dad shook the thin door of my room upon its hinges. “Your mother can’t protect you anymore. And her water stained shadows on the wall don’t frighten me.”
He said it in a high pitched shout and for the first and last time, I felt a pang of pity for my Dad and an almost certain knowing he wouldn’t last three days. I wished that I could see her shadow for I was certain it would be a comfort to me. I never did and I had that old shack of a house torn down soon after its purpose was spent.
I still pray in real words though the fear is gone and I think of things Jesus would say while sipping sherry on the bar stool my Dad used, among other things in his flat life.