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Jan/Feb 1999 Fiction

Like October's Woman

by Stanley Jenkins


 

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
       —II Peter 3: 10

 

It was October, the month when dry leaves skid across the sidewalk like crabs trying to get back to the sea—a month for journeys. I was sitting on the steps of the back porch eating a peach. I could smell the sharp fallenness of crab-apples in the yard and see the lengthening of shadows like silhouetted and strangely erotic El Grecos. But I had no money to travel—or even time. I was becalmed, the semester had only half started. Something about that weather though.

See, Upstate New York and especially the Finger Lakes region exists only in the Autumn. Any other time of year there's nothing to notice—let alone leave—but come October, the land is glorious in leafy death-flame, the lakes turn colors even Crayola couldn't name and above all the world is unashamedly poignant. Great journeys require remarkably ripe homes to which to return.

In short—I was horny.

Two years teaching American history in a Catholic school had done little for my social life. I was ready for travel—but becalmed. I was twenty five.

Still sitting on the steps, I threw my half-eaten peach into the leaf-strewn grass and could not see where it came to rest among the fallen twigs. I stood up. I stretched. I went back into the house and as I turned to close the door a sudden figure escaped from view across the lawn. It was a woman.

 

October. That year we were living in Illinois. That year for Halloween I wore the black dog costume my mother made. She copied a pattern out of a magazine. I remember my older sister was a Lady Bum. Eddie, my best friend, was a Cowboy. I must have been eight or nine. Seems like it was dark out and somehow I was alone, though this seems improbable. Just standing there.

It was Halloween. Must have been eight or nine. I was standing on the edge of a cornfield, its brown and broken stalks sodden—paper bars on a prison. Just beyond, there was a house. Seems like it was dark and I was alone, though I remember Eddie and my sister too. I was just standing there looking at the house, that dark house. Someone was in there. A thousand hands, brown and broken hands!—sodden, mournful, extending. Someone was in there. October's dark and shuttered house.

 

On Sunday mornings Sarah Livingston had laugh lines like an Old Testament matriarch and the eyes of Poe's Imp of the Perverse. She sat in the very back of St. Catherine's, near the door, unashamed of her exclusion from the Eucharist. She was there, more present than anyone in the church, a kind of elfin Eucharist herself. "This is my body". She watched us. She was there. By the end of Mass it was almost a relief to turn away from the altar—the wafer and wine still mingling on the tongue—and see her, sitting, smiling—and to meet those inevitable eyes—finally. Sarah was a divorcee and Father Paul was pre-Vatican II.

She was there. Just like October's woman.

 

Advanced Placement American History. They sat there eager to be done with the familiarity of New Hudson, with high school, with the untestedness of their desires. These were the kids on their way out, the ones who would escape, or at least could allow themselves to see it in those terms. There is a small town on the edge of suburban Detroit where I felt the same things. Dreamed similar dreams. Knew also the chafing of the bit without the dissolution of freedom. Senior year.

"Does anyone know what Governor Winthrop was talking about when he called the Massachusetts Bay Colony "a city on a hill?"

Blank faces.

Yeah, well—back then my face had been blank too.

Seems that Puritans have lost their romance for us—could be we're still too close.

The city on the hill—we were going to make the New World—the wild, the uncultivated, the untried New World—we were going to be a moral example, a beautiful utopia, a New Jerusalem for all eyes to see—but especially, those of the Old World. Our America—we came here expecting old references to hold. We came here believing we recognized the soil. We put pants on a porcupine, we built cathedrals in the wilderness, and we did not know.

"No one? C'mon class! He was quoting the Bible—something Jesus said once: 'You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.' Now what does that imply about the New World; what does that say about their hopes for an American destiny?"

Blank faces. Still too close to their own situation. Much silence. I ask the question of my own desert isle hopes, add a ladleful to an ocean, what the hell—:

"How 'bout this—in 1938 Thomas Wolfe wrote, 'I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found.'—ring any bells?"

Much silence.

Quotations, allusions—what can they possibly mean when you haven't learned yet to need roots—or even to chew through them like wolverines in a trap? They are young. America. The snapping of the kite string comes soon enough.

I turned from the class. The board was blank. It was October.

 

Saturday.

"Morning Louis," she said on the steps of the Post Office.

"Morning."

Five feet eight or nine, plaid-skirted hip leaning against the black railing—her skin was brown, her hair was brown, her hands were brown. Could have been thirty-five. I was so young.

"Beautiful day," as if meaning something else.

"Can't beat this," I agree, refusing to understand, my hands on my hips, my face lifted up looking into the blue, blue unperturbed sky—talking now like my father, my unshakable father.

"Be seeing you Louis," she's smiling, not quite looking at me—she doesn't have to—it's enough to say my name.

I'm alone on the Post Office steps, my hands on my hips, my face upturned. My father stands like this, my unshakable father. Sarah Livingston walks away like one who knows she's being watched. She walks well. She was someone I watched. She scared me. Like October's woman.

 

October. That year we were living in Michigan. That year we were listening to Bruce Springsteen songs. Must have been sixteen or seventeen, something like that, because I was driving. Bobby and I were on our way home from Ann Arbor. M-14 at night—there was never anyone out there. No cops. Only black crows in dead trees—swampland.

We were driving, seems like we were about seventeen, and then there was a figure in the headlights leaping into the ditch; we were driving. We slowed down then. We pulled over and could see our breath in the light from our opening doors.

How far back? Did you see him? Like dogs playing without people around—me and Bobby, swaggering, punching each other. Smiling. Where'd he go? We were walking together and then he was there. "Dehoko Prison" on his shirt. He was standing there. The thief. And Bobby and I without a word—we're running now for the red lights of our car. And our hands are shaking. And doors are hard to open and we are gone. Far, far. There's someone out there. Someone has escaped.

 

October. I'm living in Upstate now—New Hudson. I'm living in the Finger Lakes Region between two lakes. Seems like I've been here hardly anytime at all, but it's really been two years. I'm standing here on the porch, it's dark out and I'm standing here.

Watching shadows grow—seems like I've been here forever, but I haven't—two years, something like that, and it's dark out here between the two lakes. I'm standing on the porch looking out into the dark, out into the yard. I'm standing on the porch and the moonlight is trapped in pockets in the bushes, but I can see the dirt and the uprooted grass—as if a gracious fomentation of graves. Someone is escaping. The peach is proffered.

"Louis?" She calls my name. Just like October's woman.

Somewhere broken cornstalks are trembling. Cathedrals in the wilderness. October unfurls her hair of wheat and flame just like coming home. Her beckoning hands are brown.

It is such a strange harvest.

 

Check out vintage Jenkins in this issue's Spotlight section!

 

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