The best advice I ever heard about poetry came from Buddy Singer, who wrote no poems. “Never apologize. Not to nobody, not for nothing.”
Seeing her come off the plane, I thought: Love is admiration mixed with sex.
She had wide shoulders and hips, a healthy frame. She carried herself like a college athlete adjusting to life behind a desk. There was a rhythm to her walking. Her sunglasses weren’t quite dark enough to hide her eyes, and when she first hugged me (doing the “mwah” thing, that New York kiss to the cheek), I smelled, in the corner of her neck, a faint odor of sidewalk flower vendors. My first feeling was one of simple gratitude. That she had come to see me, only me. I admired her bravery, just getting on a plane. Not knowing precisely what she was letting herself in for.
Pete’s body was found by road hunters from Glendive. A father and son. They pulled off for lunch, sitting on their tailgate, eating sandwiches. The boy had his first pair of binoculars. He couldn’t be separated from them. From a distance, focusing, he could just make out a scrap of Pete’s t-shirt fluttering in the breeze. “What’s that on the edge of the trees down there, do you suppose?” Maybe it was a survey flag. “Go on down and check it out, if you want.” The father, fifty pounds overweight and just unwrapping a sandwich, was inclined to be indulgent. Let the kid have his fun. But then the boy was gesturing wildly. Come look, come look.
A few minutes later, at the father’s feet, here was a portion of Pete’s temple, a clump of well-preserved gray hair. An eye socket, a glint of silver coin. “Good lord.”
Pete had been proud of his hair; was always running a comb through it, patting it flat, drawing attention. He’d be pleased to know that it had withstood the years.
The front page of the Billings Gazette? “Body Found on Poet’s Ranch.” The father was quoted, “We both just had this feeling, like something bad was about to happen, you know?” The story hit the wires.
The clay, I suppose, the bentonite, had acted as a sealant, preserving the body. That goddamned clay. It scrolls around your tires, collects on your shoes. Everybody in Eastern Montana, we all live in this basin of antediluvian runoff from the mountains. Seventy million years ago we were under water. The mountains are rising even yet, slow as an hour hand. They’re mostly granite, which in turn is mostly feldspar, which erodes to clay. And clay erodes, it seems, to tumuli, the detritus of graveyards. Oil-colored imprints of delicate ferns and crumbling, tree-trunk femurs. The surface wants to shed the water but a good healthy cloudburst will peel it back in layers. A geological narrative, plodding doggedly backwards. Given enough time, of course, it will reveal everything.
* * * *
His mother, dead not yet a year and still a presence in the house (bursts of bath soap from the closets, needlework arabesques in the dishtowels) had called him Hiram, but we knew him only by the name stenciled into his belt: Buddy.
He had tried to clean up for our arrival, but the residue of filth he’d accumulated since his mother’s death was nearly insurmountable. Cookie crumbs in the throw rugs, fossilized jelly stains on the counter, a finger-wide trail of ants marching mudroom to pantry. Buddy himself smelled earthy, like turned soil and fresh milk in a bucket. He wore a flannel shirt and suspenders. Given his narrow hips and sagging belly (parabolas of white cotton t-shirt between the buttons), the suspenders were not an affectation. Nervous, he ran his hands over his graying crew cut. He turned to the kitchen with a flourish, saying to my mother, “You’ll be changing things, I guess. Making it your own.” Rotten dishes, festering garbage, apple cores.
I was twelve years old. A nail biter and mouth breather. I had allergies.
Buddy took me and Emma into the back of the house, showing us the room where we would be sleeping. My sister affected arrogance, popping gum off my ear. We would be sleeping, it seemed, in a squalid shoebox of dust and dead flies, decorated with framed needlework. An iron bedstead and thin, stained mattress.
Under our feet, a raveling runner the color of cheap wine. We were poor, it’s true. But I’d never had to share a bed with my sister.
He had made most all of his own furniture, and because he was a poor carpenter, on first impression it seemed that he lived a haphazard, unplanned existence. Square photos displayed in skewed frames. Chairs wobbled in improbable directions. If a pea fell from your fork, it rolled northwest. The home of a transient, we thought at first; a derelict; a man of careless intent. But he was in fact entrenched; he was, in fact, meticulous.
The tour took no more than ten minutes. It was an hour until dinner. What came next? At a loss for further distractions, he showed us his scars.
His only piece of store-bought furniture was an overstuffed recliner.
Upholstered in a coarse yellow fabric, glittering with metallic threads, the chair had apparently been fished from a stock pond, or barring that, bought from a yard sale interrupted by a torrential thunderstorm. It still held odors of damp and mold and mud. He sat in it now with the leg of his overalls rolled to one knee. His index finger traced the jagged teeth of a scar around his kneecap. “Barbed wire,” he said, dropping his pants leg. He unbuttoned his shirt, showing us his shoulder. “Birdshot.” Finally, he jerked off his boot and held up one bare foot, huge and hard as a hoof. “Axe.”
Was it meant to be a boast, this exhibition? A swagger? Or perhaps a warning: See, this is what can happen. Or maybe it was an awkward attempt at graciousness. Two small strangers in his house, and in the process of revisiting his own childhood, he’d remembered his own curiosity about someone else’s wounds.
I was appalled, fascinated. Emma feigned disinterest, playing with her hair. Buddy wheezed back in his chair, legs planted thick as stumps, big hands spread across his knees. He stared past us at a framed studio portrait of his mother. The old lady glared down, lips pinched tight as a purse. In the corner, his grandfather clock ticked hard. A black and white Australian shepherd, Tony, sat by Buddy’s chair, panting. Buddy’s hand dropped to the dog’s head. “Ssss, Tony. Ssss. It’s all right. You’re okay.” Emma pinched my leg, I stared at the floor. We both studied our mother.
* * * *
My real father tripped off the stage early. I know him only through the warped, one-dimensional lens of early childhood, flashes like the surprised catch before a movie breaks its film. His name, Seamus, stitched into the synthetic blue pocket of his work shirt; and the vague odors of gasoline, Speedstick deodorant, the sensation of spinning in his hands. Years after his death, his magazines still littered our garage. Field and Stream, Sports Afield, True. His appetite was for the pornography of bigger bucks, longer fish. A short man with dark hair and a skin tone all out of keeping with his Irish blood. I have his height and hair but not his skin. Even with his children, me and my older sister, he affected a nervous good humor that led one to believe that he’d once been the butt of jokes, that high school had not been kind to him.
He died by drowning, a death precipitated by rumors of big walleyes on Fort Peck. “Catching them like this.” Four employees of High Road Mechanics made the necessary phone calls, changed into oil-stained sweaters, lumped themselves together into a 1958 maroon Buick sedan. Two transmission mechanics, a teenage football star from Billings Central, and my father, who rebuilt engines. This has all been described to me. From here, I can only imagine.
There would have been drinking, certainly. Holes chopped through the ice with iron spuds. A bonfire. Hooks baited with bullheads and rods tilted above the holes. A whiskey bottle going around, faster and faster. An escalation of laughter. Reels that jerked and sputtered. Fish pulled out onto the ice to freeze mid-flop.
Finally, the grumble of a motor. The ice was certainly thick enough. It should have been thick enough. There were tracks of previous cars spinning doughnuts. Skids and circles like the fisted doodlings of a child, the orbits of lopsided planets.
Laughter, the rumble of the engine. One of the men tossed a whiskey bottle from the window. It began to snow—a twilight gray unfeathering in every direction, erasing the meridian between ice and sky. It must have been beautiful. But they finally ventured out too far, driving over a bubble of warm spring water. The front wheels punched through first, forced by the weight of the engine. The men jerked forward, engine revving, rear tires sizzling. Then they were floating, leaning. It would have happened very fast. Shards of ice splashed against the windshield. The doors were jammed. Within a final, insulated silence, the car sank, tilting gently toward the bottom, coming finally to rest in a settling cloud of silt. They found the car, and three of the bodies, but not my father. He had managed to roll down his window and kick away. I imagine his eyes going black with the spots of his final breath. He’s lurching, clawing through the water, finally to smack his fists against a glowing membrane of sky. They never found his body.
No insurance, and he left us with not quite enough money in the bank for a good used car.
My mother was not well equipped to handle the loss. She wasn’t fully capable of raising her children, not by herself. We learn these things in retrospect. Of our early years in Billings, I remember most how she and my sister circled each other in a series of fragile, overly-polite truces punctuated by ugly scenes of slamming doors, shouted accusations. Mother had been married less than six months when Emma was born. “You were a mistake, Emma. I’ve told you that, haven’t I?”
There weren’t many jobs for women in Montana in the seventies. Nurse or school teacher, hair stylist or housekeeper. Our mother cut hair. Standing at her station Tuesdays through Saturdays, ten to six, she winced over her lower back, shifted on fallen arches. Growing up in Butte, she’d wanted most of all to be an artist. “Georgia O’Keefe, only without the porn.” She’d had a talent for sketching, and still kept scrapbooks. Sunset over the pit. A mule deer. Studies of a housecat.
In retribution, or perhaps out of jealousy (as Emma aged and began attracting glances) my mother put her foot down. “I ever catch you alone in a house with a grown man, girly? You’ll be out on the street before you can say two-bit whore.” My mother was in her early thirties, an age when some women struggle against their fading youth. At a time when mini-skirts were all the rage, when hot-curled, Farrah-Fawcett hair was de rigueur, Mother dressed Emma in floral-print prairie skirts and forced her into the braids of a sixties folk singer. “You’re still young enough, I’ll send you to the children’s farm. Don’t think I won’t.” The children’s farm was a theme throughout our childhoods, her persistent threat.
Emma said, “I don’t think there is such a place.”
“A lot you know, missy.”
Once or twice a month (Mother’s snores rising from the next room), Emma would open her window and unclip the screen, straddle the sill, reach across to the lattice of dead ivy and slip away. An hour later, smelling of cigarettes, she would return to wake me up, sit Indian wise on my floor, sorting through shoplifted tubes of lipstick, tiny jars of eyeliner. She’d hand me candy bars—“This is for you.”— which I would eat in impressed silence. I was the last person in the world who wanted to see her in trouble. I was the conciliator, the peacemaker. I told lies on behalf of an imagined peace.
Mother had her moments of generosity. We would sometimes climb into our station wagon and drive up to the rims to watch the planes land. This was, at least in part, a reflection of our financial condition, of a time when even the fifty cents for a matinee sent us digging through the couch cushions. But in some ways the airport was better than a movie. We stared through finger-smudged windows as cathedrals of silver left the earth in defiance of gravity and reason. Mother ignored the planes, opting instead for the discarded magazines and newspapers, reading the horoscopes with an avidity that drew attention to itself. Scoffing, laughing in delight. She sat with her shoes kicked off and her legs curled up, glancing at the arriving passengers. The elaborate grins and waiting hugs. The dropped luggage and rush to Grandma. And while the delight my sister and I found in airports was of the sort that could be had under any big top (elaborate miracles for small fees), the attractions my mother felt were almost certainly familial, the envy of homecomings. Not yet as old as we thought her, not unattractive, when the cycles of her depression gave way to frivolity, she would spend at least one evening a week out dancing. She would model for us her nicest dresses, ask our opinions.
She had a small record player in a pink case, and on these good evenings she would play Allman Brothers 45s and dance from one dress to the another. During a brief period—after babysitters but before the loss of incredulity—Emma and I would sit and applaud or make expressions of distaste that were meant only to exaggerate her laughter. More than a few of these nights, of course, ended with Mother fumbling at the front door, giggling; a strange man snatching at her from behind.
Given her fondness for horoscopes, newspapers, it’s maybe appropriate that she found our new lives in a classified ad. Lost in a wad of packaging, twisted around a thrift store lamp, half an inch of understated hope and subsumed loneliness. She cut it out and kept it by the phone for a week before calling for an interview: “Housekeeper wanted, Rattletrap Ranch, Jordan. Rm & Brd included. Good pay. Kids (especially Boys) okay.” In later years, I would try to imagine Buddy at his off-kilter kitchen table, scribbling different versions of this ad. All the time he would have been feeling his mother’s disapproval. What an effort, what a great effort it must have been.
I’m sure it was difficult for Mother, too. Her last day in the hair salon. A scattering of clippings on tile, the soothing odors of sprays and gels, the balloons they’d brought to her station. It had not been a happy place for her but it did have the comfort of habit.
When she drove us north, everything we owned fit into the back of the wagon. Three hours on pavement, another on gravel. Like sailing or swimming, our progress was so slow as to seem nonexistent. The horizon remained at a constant remove. Gradually, however, the farm ground crumbled away, folding into a pine-furzed jumble of eroded hills, knobs and coulees.
In late afternoon, we came to a split in the road. There was a view. She stopped the car, sitting for a moment gripping the wheel. Our contrail of dust caught up to us, sending pale clouds past the windows. To the north, a double-wide trailer house, a rusty swingset. She said, “That’s where you’ll be going to school.”
What had seemed quaint suddenly turned squalid.
Was my mother uncertain? She turned off the engine and stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. Was she questioning herself? Reassessing those stars and star alignments that had brought us to this pass? While she smoked, Emma and I kicked through the weeds beside the road. Emma said, “There’s arrowheads all through this country.” Eventually, my mother flicked her cigarette away and, with small motions of her fingers, brought us into a hug, clutching us hard, kissing our cheeks, one and then the other. “My soldiers, my dear brave little soldiers.”
Despite everything, this was, I think, a good day for her.
From BLOOM OF BONES. Used with permission of Ig Publishing. Copyright © 2016 by Allen Morris Jones.