Family: On a Good Day

Photo by Lori L. Stalteri (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Lori L. Stalteri (copied from Flickr)

I’ve lost my mom.

We’re in downtown Chieftain. There’s little more than a block of booths selling something “authentically Italian.” People pass holding their hands up like surgeons after scrubbing-in. But these people, probably not a doctor among them, have their hands occupied with beer and sagging paper plates. Red smears stain their shirts, the aftermath of a botched operation. The day is familiar, not quite like a memory, but close. I feel a figure forming from another day, some other festival, my hands held in much larger hands, one rough the other soft, picking me up and swinging me between them.

Mom calls my name, and I spot her by a booth selling baked goods.

A train horn deafens us. It blurs by. The rickety tents around the booths shiver. Wind kicks-up around us, and I feel my hair flying. I make eye contact with a girl behind the table of sweets. Her face is thin and tall, her lips thick and pink. She sweeps my face, regarding me with stern, coal eyes, and looks back at my mom before I can encourage a smile. Patting my head, I feel a mess like a crown of moss. Mom’s dark brown bob, a new haircut–fresh start, is hair sprayed in place. I drop my hand and watch the train pass.

“They’ve got homemade biscotti,” Mom says, smiling wide.

They look dense, harder than the stuff at coffee shops. But it’s today, so I act excited. “Great, you should get some.”

She smiles again. For a moment I think how much younger her sincere excitement over cookies makes her look. But even after a year grief still restrains the sharp contours of her smile.

“They’re from the school,” she says. “Weren’t you part of the Italian club in college?”

“Yeah, I was president,” I say. I’m pretty sure she knows I was, but I think maybe she’s trying to guide the girl’s attention toward me. I grin at the girl. Her eyes grow darker, so I give-up adjusting my hair. “Strikeout, Tiger,” Dad would have said. Mom buys a dozen biscotti, and I ask for some of the powdered cookies. As she passes the bag to me, the girl thanks us, but keeps her eyes on Mom. The walls of the little baggie are fogged with white dust. It reminds me of the sky, all cloud covered and grey. We’re at a street fair and it’s about to rain. I can’t imagine being here much longer.

“What next?” Mom says. “Spaghetti?”

“You know I don’t like spaghetti,” I say, knowing she’ll rebuttal with something about Dad being the one who liked spaghetti.

And she does.

But that’s not entirely true. If I were honest, her cooking was never good. But Dad ate whatever she cooked, and taught me to appreciate it no matter how it tasted. My face betrays me, and she’s too aware of what I want to say next. He liked lasagne, not spaghetti. Mom never learned how to make lasagne. Too late – but I stay quiet.

We’ve already seen everything in less than thirty minutes. But Mom’s making a second sweep of the festival, directing smiles at everyone passing. Her way of being strong or defiant.

“I bet he would have enjoyed this, don’t you?”

It’s a real question, as though she’s not sure. Maybe she isn’t. It’s hard to know. It feels like all I can recall is the six months before he died. What did he like? Would he have wanted to be here? I eat a cookie; wipe white fingerprints on my jeans. We watch each other. But she doesn’t expect an answer. I’m not sure I want to give her one.

“We should get garlic, it helps prevent it,” she says. “You should eat lots of garlic.”

People pass still covered in red sauce. She begins to walk away. Stops. “And exercise.”

“What kind of garlic?”

“It took you grandfather, too.” Her pale hand clamps my arm – quickly falls to her side. And she turns away. “Just be aware of your habits.”

She keeps bringing him up. Reminding me. I thought the fair would distract us after visiting the spot of earth where the rest of him is wasting away.

“Can we go?” I say.

“No, I want to see the church.”

“Why, we don’t-”

“Well maybe we should. Just walk with me.”

We cross the tracks. I eat another cookie and look down the line. The tree limbs are cut back, and a line of grey sky streaks down the centre. The tracks stretch to a vanishing point. So few paths do, I think, then, call myself a sentimental twat like Dad would have. Not as a jab. It was his way. He would have said it’s just the horizon and we have too many trees.

“Where is the church?” Mom says.

“Chapel,” I say.

“What?” Mom says and stops, crimping her eyebrows.

“I think it’s a chapel. Not a church.” Somehow I can’t stop myself, even today. Maybe Dad’s way is my way, too. Her defiance goes limp, and guilt threatens bile like a geyser out my throat. It’s like before, when she pulled – when I pushed.

They said it spread, mesatastic, Mom had said, crying.

It’s gone metastatic, not mesatastic, I had said, correcting her. He’s not got long.

In the wet corners of her eyes I see again when things changed, when I couldn’t talk about him anymore as my dad. Maybe it was the counselling research I was doing, pretending it was for me to help my students. What geography teacher needs to know that much about counselling? I want to hug her, but I can’t remember the last time I have.

“Two more blocks,” I say. “I think the church is two more blocks that way.”

I don’t actually know where the chapel is. We’re from three towns over. But they all look the same, a few blocks of old, two-story brick buildings sharing walls. I see a steeple and women dressed in white walking in that direction. I’m following them. Past the tracks, at the corner, there’s a booth with vegetables, and big gourds plagued with knobby growths. Medical metaphors surface from the doctor’s office. I can’t shake the images he created, or Mom and Dad’s faces looking at me as though it were my body and not his.

“Maybe they have garlic,” I say.

Mom turns her head. Sees what I see. She frowns and shakes her head; we keep walking.

The chapel is a maze of freestanding display boards. Jagged cut-outs from newspapers turned yellow are pinned to a few of them. They’re all history about the town, the church, and the festival Most of the articles are about former prominent citizens. The whole town seems to be founded by gangsters turned honest. Middle-aged faces with obits citing mysterious circumstances outnumber the wrinkled faces that died of natural causes, or actual medical conditions. Mom walks off, looking at statues of saints, but the board has my attention.

One, a mayor, was killed when his car caught fire driving down the highway. It was prohibition-era, but there wasn’t any mention of his cargo at the time. I imagine he was transporting jugs or casks of volatile liquid – smoker, too, I bet. Dad would have said the man was a ticking time bomb. Same thing Dad had called himself.

I search for Mom over my shoulder, she’s nearby, so I shuffle around to the other side of the board. There’s a white map of the U.S. with crisscrossing red lines. They’re not highways or interstates; none of them have numbers. They’re train tracks. I can tell because they begin as a cluster in the east and reach west across the map, spreading further apart, choking the other states. I think of x-rays and MRIs tracking Dad’s progress, but in the wrong direction.

Next to the map are photographs, dog-eared and stained, of three similar looking men. Next to each portrait is a clipping. The first says, “Robert Kline, 19, killed by train while walking home.” It says he’d been drinking. The next says, “George Kline, 25, Car Stalled on Tracks.”

The last portrait, Michael Kline, is accompanied by a whole newspaper spread. The headline reads, “Train Kills Three Brothers.” The photos show multiple boxcars toppled on the side of the tracks. The engine went through the corner of a building. Where the man was hit there’s nothing but brick rubble. Just going about his day and here came the train. He made it to sixty-two, like Dad. It’s like he was doomed, fated to suffer the same demise as his brothers. At least it was quick, not drawn out with false hopes. His family didn’t have to endure constipated-looking faces from concerned friends and strangers constantly reminding them of what is coming. They keep squinching their faces after he’s gone. More reminders, relentless, always wanting to talk about it, tell me what a great man he was, that at least he’s no longer in pain. Is it so hard to smile at someone and still be sympathetic? Can’t they just pretend they don’t know it happened? Will there ever be a day I don’t see him in everything and hear his voice in my head?

I spin, and can’t find Mom. I’ve lost her again. Twisting through the white halls of display boards, I panic. What if she’s gone, too? What happens when I have to remember her and him? Will I remember her? This day? Her smile? My wit like his wit. My name his name.

“There you are,” Mom says. “Are you okay?”

I can tell my face is all screwed-up. Sentimental twat. “Yeah,” I say, fixing my face. “I’m fine.” She eyes me, knows better than to believe me. But I ignore it. “So, did you pray?” I say.

“Yeah, I paid twenty-five cents to light a little white candle,” Mom says. “Catholics.”

I laugh; maybe I get it from her, too. We leave the chapel; head back to the car. It’s still gloomy as we cross the tracks, and the girl watches from her booth. I look down at my jeans and see the white streaks. Running my hand back and forth to dust them off, I look up and smile at her. Again, she doesn’t smile back. “You’re just a glutton for punishment,” Dad would have said.

“How’s your biscotti?” I say to Mom.

“I haven’t even tried any.” Mom says. She takes two out, hands me one.

We walk as we crunch – nearly break our teeth.

Mom spits. “I could have made these,” she says, and tosses them in the trash.

“Yeah,” I say, “and Dad would have liked them.”

Mom laughs.

It’s a beautiful day.

Dusty Cooper

About Dusty Cooper

Dusty Cooper recently received his Master’s of Creative Writing from Southeastern Louisiana University where he mentored with Bev Marshall, and was awarded the Spring 2011 D. Vickers Award for Creative Writing. His work appears in Fogged Clarity, Berkeley Fiction Review, Fiction Southeast, Paper Nautilus, and the July 2014 Weave Magazine. He currently teaches at SLU.

Dusty Cooper recently received his Master’s of Creative Writing from Southeastern Louisiana University where he mentored with Bev Marshall, and was awarded the Spring 2011 D. Vickers Award for Creative Writing. His work appears in Fogged Clarity, Berkeley Fiction Review, Fiction Southeast, Paper Nautilus, and the July 2014 Weave Magazine. He currently teaches at SLU.

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