Jan/Feb 2008  •   Fiction


by A. Ray Norsworthy

Photo-art by Steve Wing

Photo-art by Steve Wing

I stand at the window and watch and wait. Sometimes it's hard to see through the fence. I can see clearly now. No signs of spring yet. The flowerbeds are bare ground. Very little snow this winter. Cold they tell me. Looks cold. There is an irrigation canal on the other side of the fence. Right now the canal is dry except for patches of ice from the puddles left when it was drained in the fall. Besides the ice, the sand and gravel bottom is scattered with old soda pop cans, tires, plastic six pack holders, yellowed newspapers, strung-out parts from a car motor, which with a little imagination could be the petrified guts of an ancient fish, and there, almost hidden underneath the eroded bank, entangled in the long, hair-like roots of a line of crippled willows, two little twin girls three years old, wearing soggy and soiled pink gingham dresses with big pink bows in the front. I can't see much of their faces because they're smeared with mud and leaves. But I know what they look like, anyway, and when they're alive they're so lovely with the widest smiles and laughing eyes.

One girl's knees are skinned. She slid down the playground slide too fast and toppled forward onto the hard ground. I saw her knobby little knees up close when she was laid out on the cold steel coroner's table. The skinned knees were about the only thing distinguishing her from her sister, on the table next to her. I removed the Band-Aids and kissed her raw, salty flesh, no longer bleeding.

The quail flush easily. There are hundreds of them roaming the brushy banks, crying out in a loud coo coo as if they can't decide whether in fear or celebration. And even though winter has set in and the water won't be back until spring, there are still a half-dozen stubborn ducks sitting on the patches of ice and waiting. I envy them their optimism. Their wings. Their sense of purpose.

—I can walk like a duck and talk like a duck. I guess that makes me a duck.

—You're not a duck!

It's that crazy old woman who stays in this room with me. How does she know what I'm thinking? I must have been thinking out loud. This woman is always harassing me. One of the aids—the plump colored girl with blonde hair—said she poisoned her family. She won't tell me what I've done to deserve being cooped up here and they keep me so foggy on medication I can't remember anything. She just looks at me with big sad eyes and shakes her head. The sour-looking nurse with the mole says I should be getting the needle. I'm not sure what she means since I get one every day. It seems like the more some nurses learn about medicine the more they forget about people. I'm just a little mixed up. I'll be fine once I've rested. Jerry will be here to pick me up any time now, I'm sure of it.

About the girls, I know how terribly they must have suffered. God, why did you make them suffer? I don't understand. An image comes to me and I begin to tremble. The person who killed those darling angels is a man of the Lord: my father, the beloved Reverend Augustus Lloyd. How could he have snuffed out the lives of two little girls? No, I must be wrong. Where did I get that idea? It's these drugs. They would mess up anyone's thinking. I get headaches. My mind wanders. Thoughts flying up in all directions like those quail. Seeing things. I'm tired. So tired. I get confused. Who wouldn't get confused?

—The next time they bring me those awful pills I'm going to spit them on the floor!

—They'll make you lick them up!

The old lady is raving again. She laughs as if she said something funny. I turn away from the window and take a few steps toward my tormentor. She's sitting in a chair next to her bed, fingering a crocheted Afghan in her lap as if trying to figure out what it is. — I most certainly will not! Mind your own business or I'll call the police and they'll arrest you for invasion of privacy!

The colored blonde nurse's aid waddles in the open door and puts her fingers to her lips, as if shushing a child. — Sit yo'self down, Hazel, she says. — Don't get agitated. Watch The Price Is Right. She turns on her lamp and then the crazy woman's lamp.

I sit down in the chair next to my bed. The television is elevated in the corner. Bob Barker is barking down at me. Woof, woof, lady, woof, woof. Come on down, woof. I see Jerry in the audience, jumping up and down. Wonder what he's doing there? They won't allow live TV in this place. They play tape after tape of game show reruns. No newspapers or magazines, either.

Okay, I need more rest, but at least I'm not off my rocker like a certain someone in the immediate vicinity.

The crazy woman squawks in protest, and I realize I'm speaking my thoughts out loud again. It's hard to tell sometimes. It's a nervous habit; my own mother did it most of her life. I do what she did when someone would tell her: I put my lips together and button them with my fingertips.

The aid laughs. She tells the crazy woman everything is all right now and asks if she needs anything else. The crazy woman says she needs her car keys. I shake my head in equal parts disgust and pity. While the aid fetches some water, I get up and walk around to the other side of the bed and sit down on it. I can see out the window from here. My fingertips taste like moth dust. A few seconds later I hear the aid's shoes squeak down the hall. There were clouds over the sun and shadows and now with the sun out I see their bodies are gone.

Never there, I mean.

It's nothing but a pile of rags. The pills, yes. My father is a saint; he wouldn't hurt his granddaughters. I just can't remember what happened. I can't even remember if he's alive or not. Mother died, I know that much. She had a weak heart. Father always says she did.

God help me to remember.

Some things I remember so well, it's like stepping out of a dark cave into bright sunlight. I remember the time I flew to Las Vegas with my husband, Jerry. I drank an alcoholic drink for the first time, a daiquiri. Tasted awful, just like daddy always told me it would. I told Jerry sin always has a bad aftertaste. He didn't think so. He drank two and after we went up to our room he wanted to have sex on the balcony. I just wanted to jump. We were way up on the 29th floor and the city lights were like a fantasyland. I'd never seen so much glitter. The fountains were right under us, down below. I thought I would make a nice splash. Jerry must have known what I was thinking because he kept his hand locked around my wrist and wouldn't let me go. I can't remember if we had sex or not. It was always over with so fast, I don't know why I even minded. I won $60 in quarters at a One-Armed Bandit, and I jumped up and down.

I think I was happy that moment.

It seems like it, anyway. All that mad jingling. The dazzling lights. Everyone there wanted everyone there to be happy. They were so glad to be there. To be filled with joy. Jerry said that was desperation, not joy. I said, what's the difference?

One day the temperature was 112 degrees. Jerry fried an egg on the hood of our rental car and took pictures of it so he could show his bowling buddies. There were brazen prostitutes everywhere you went, and they hardly had any clothes on. I saw Wayne Newton at the Riviera. He sang old fashioned songs with a big band and played a lot of instruments, and a lot of women who looked and dressed very much like me screamed and acted like school girls. It was like being in Las Vegas gave them permission to act the way they really wanted to act.

—I didn't act that way, though, and I didn't want to. I knew you were watching me, God.

—God is the Devil! God is the Devil! the crazy woman yells, and then she sticks out her tongue.

This time I ignore her. For all have sinned and come short of the glory.

Wayne Newton took my hand and brought me up on the stage while he sang "Red Roses for a Blue Lady." Then he gave me a dozen red roses. I thanked him. Jerry ate something bad on a casino smorgasbord and had severe diarrhea. On the plane ride back, he had gas the whole way. A rowdy toddler in front of us got the blame. I could hear Jerry's stomach rumbling, and I thought, what if babies were made of gas and all you had to do was expel them from your rear end? I whispered that to Jerry, and he looked at me like I'd left all my sense in Vegas. I was three months along with the twins at the time, but only I knew.

I've always been good at keeping secrets. Sometimes I even keep them from myself. That can be a problem. That haughty psychologist has a name for it. Who cares what he thinks? Oh, well, he's not too bad for a gentile.

The aid brings pitchers of water, and the young, giggly nurse comes with pills. She makes me open my mouth wide to make sure I swallowed them. I forget to spit them out. Next time I'll remember. She tries to coax me to bed but I point out the window and tell her it's still daytime. She gives me one of her sassy looks.

—Just don't be botherin' Mrs. Bodean over here, okay, Hazel?

I nod and give her a sweet smile, and she pads out of the room, her big rear end shaking.

If they had their way, we would be in bed all the time. Those pills they claim are vitamins. I know better. My sister Caroline told me—when was it? Was it Sunday?—never to believe what they tell you. Oh, wait, what am I thinking? Caroline died years ago from cancer, six or seven years after Annie and Carrie. Good god, it must have been... I don't know how long. What does it matter? The dead don't even know they're dead. Caroline. The pretty one, my father called her one time in front of me. How I hated the way he looked at me.

Like I was an abomination unto the Lord.

I lean forward, my eyes straining to see out the window. It's raining again. It rains every Sunday. A mist, really. Cold, windblown gray slant. Just enough moisture hits the ground to make mud from the whitish grit that used to be volcanic ash. Good for growing potatoes. Jerry's father was a potato farmer from Rigby. We used to get burlap sacks full of unmarked, oval-shaped, golden skin Russets during the harvest. They were so delicious. Dry and fluffy as snowflakes. The best potatoes have no eyes.

Maybe I should have been a potato, God.

My eyes get heavy. When I open them, I'm lying sideways on the bed. I sit up and rub my eyes. What is this place, a hospital? What is this place, this ugly, dismal place? What do they want from me? They need to do something about the windows. Where are my babies? Where are my little Annie and Carrie? Sweet Jesus, where are my children? It's all a blank; I can't remember. I'm trying so hard.

It's like I just woke up from a dream.

Maybe if I cause a fuss, someone will tell me why I'm here. I go to the open door and yell down the dimly-lighted hallway. — Nurse? Where's the nurse? I want to see the nurse!

The colored blonde aid comes and puts her arm around me. Her voice is soft and soothing. Except for her terrible hair, she reminds me of that plump colored woman who took care of Scarlet in Gone with the Wind, my favorite movie of all time. She gently herds me back into the room and tells me I have to go to bed. She helps me into my nightgown and tucks me in as if I were a child. I ask her to stay with me. I'm scared to look in her eyes.

—Now you know I cain't stay, honey. I got other folks to take care of. I'll come by and visit you in a while, okay? She whispers something and pats my shoulder before she leaves. I forget not to look at her. What is it I see in her big, brown eyes?

I sink back into the pillow and squeeze my eyes shut until she's out the door. I start thinking about things, trying to remember, and then Oh, no, oh, no, that's not... oh, dear God, heavenly savior, precious redeemer, who was it, God? Oh, God no please no God please don't bring the light, God please keep the darkness!

What kind of monster could do this horrible thing to my darling Annie, darling Carrie, dear precious blessed angels, my little angels, Jesus' little angels, my precious darling daughters? Who could have been insane enough to dump those adorable girls in the canal out in back of our house? I remember when the police came, they were so kind. They said they would find the murderer and he would pay with his life. They put my picture on the front page of the Gazette. Jerry was holding me up. It was a terrible picture. I looked lost. I was lost. Maybe that's how I wound up here.

Wayne Newton gave me roses!

That crazy woman is snoring. I get up and go to the window. Nothing to see but a tall metal fence with barbed wire at the top. They must really be afraid someone is going to break in. I put my weight on one cold foot and then the other. Slippers should have been put on. My face burns from the medications. I feel an unbearable restlessness, want to jump! Want to run! A kind of fake energy. So tired, can't rest. If it were real, yes, if this body would allow it, I would definitely burst through this window and go dancing into the night, let the stars rain magic twinkles on my upturned heels and bring me back to my youth. I could start over again, and I'd know just what to do. I wouldn't let happiness wait at my doorstep like a grinning prom date holding candy and flowers while I hid behind the door too scared to open it.

This time I would open the door. I would go to the dance, God.

Jerry, poor, wilted man, wanted to save me, but he had no idea what he was trying to save me from. By the time he found out, it was too late for me and too late for Annie and Carrie. He had a heart attack a few years after their deaths and died sitting up in his fishing boat. When they found him, he was naked from the waist down. No one could explain why. Caroline broke the news to me while I stood at this window. Daddy always said Jerry was a pervert.

My face burns. It's the pills. Next time I'm going to spit them out. These people think I'm crazy or something. I need to get out of here. Across the canal I can see the shy moon hiding behind the bent willows. In the night the trees resemble rib bones from a giant carcass. The canal is deep in shadow, but it's full of dark, rushing wind starting to roar in my head. I wish I was in Las Vegas now with the blinding glitter and the ka-ching, ka-ching of the One-Arm Bandits, the hollow metallic laughter, the endless optimism of all those losers. I'd go see Wayne Newton. Danke Schoen, darling, danke schoen. Thank you for the la la la la la.

All of a sudden the overhead light comes on. I turn around. The giggly nurse says go back to bed. As I start for the bed, I quack like a duck. She giggles. — You're really good at that, she says, darting out the door.

My mother taught me how. She taught me all the animal noises. And she taught me how to Indian wrestle. I beat all the girls, even my sister. On summer Saturdays when Daddy was working on his sermon, she took me to the community pool and taught me to swim, even though Daddy had forbidden it because he didn't want me to wear a bathing suit in public. When he found out, he practically dragged me to the church baptistery and said we were going to practice my baptism. He filled it with water and then he dunked me and held me under until I thought I would burst. Then he did it again and again until I begged forgiveness and finally passed out. When I woke up at home in bed, he said, now your sins are redeemed, as God is our witness.

I remember mama holding my hand and crying. Oh, and mama taught me how to juggle butter knives and sew clothes for my dolls and tie seven different kinds of knots, but it was my father who taught me the important things. He taught me to fear God. He taught me to fear sin. He taught me to fear Hell. He taught me to fear the Devil disguised as knowledge. He taught me to fear sex. Most of all, he taught me to fear him.

I was afraid all the time, wasn't I, God?

I climb back in bed and pull the covers up over my head like I did when I was a little girl. I used to pretend God couldn't see me. It all seems so clear now. My body starts to shake. I'm so cold. Why wasn't Jerry there that Saturday? Oh, I remember; he was working a six-day, ten-hour shift at the Simplot plant that summer. I barely even saw him awake except at the supper table. He came in so tired he practically collapsed in his recliner. I remember the puffs of white dust when he plopped down. Annie and Carrie were three, almost four. Daddy could hardly wait to baptize them; he said he'd never baptized twins before. I told him, there's plenty of time, plenty of time, they haven't reached the age of accountability, and he said, There's never plenty of time, there's never enough time, there's no time like the right time, so sayeth I, and I am God's prophet! Then he called me a talebearer and said, the words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly. Burning lips and a wicked heart are like a potsherd covered with silver dross. He who hateth, dissembleth with his lips, and layeth up deceit within; when you speaketh fair, I believeth not, for there are seven abominations in your heart. Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein. Proverbs 22.

That shut me up.

I learned that verse from heart. My God, it was hot in Twin Falls that summer. That was the summer Evil Kneivel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon. There wasn't a single breeze that entire summer. Just dust and sun and feeling exhausted all the time. The girls loved to play church. We lived two blocks away from the temple, where my father preached. He treated the girls like they were his. They were afraid of him, as afraid of him as I was. He said he was going to raise them to be missionaries. Mama hardly talked at all by then. Jerry was too tired to intervene. He was afraid, too. I prayed for guidance.

God, you told me to shake the dust off my feet.

I knew what that meant. Or I thought I did. There was only one thing to do to save them. I baptized them both. Yes, yes, I remember now. They thought it was fun at first. But then... I blacked out. They said I went into some kind of trance... some kind of... oh, I don't know, I never want to hear those words again. I thought I was doing what you wanted, God. In the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, I baptized my darling daughters, Annie and Carrie into eternity...

To be with you.

Quack, quack.