165 / 365 – Blow Away

SARAH STRASBERG

I don’t even know. It’s our sixteenth anniversary. Should have been our sixteenth anniversary. I’ve been walking back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom. The water tastes stale. I opened the windows to let a breeze in, but there is no breeze. The air never moves here when I need it to. I’m out in wind country and I might suffocate.

Hell, it would have been twenty five years, if you count all the years before that, stops and starts. I remember the pictures I used to have framed, on the bookshelves. There’s one my friend Patty took — a close-up of Erik and I about to have our first kiss as a husband and a wife. After all those years, finally. It was the start of summer and I had flowers in my hair, a strand of wildflowers my friend Maria had picked in Maine just the day before. The color was washed out and it looked like something from the sixties. When I remember that day, the hope, it seems old and foolish, like the sixties. Like, we know better now that to have those kinds of youthful illusions. I buried those pictures years ago, but they might as well be out today. It’s as if they’re on my shelves, I have them memorized.

I feel like having a drink. I opened a bottle of whiskey Finn left here but it smelled like lighter fluid. The vodka smelled like propane. The thought of a glass of wine made my stomach turn. One of the pictures I can’t stop remember is of the two of us seen through a glass of wine. Patty didn’t take that one, but what a cliche. It’s the cliches that hurt the worst.

Leah’s not here. I think I’m glad. Maybe I’m not glad. Maybe I could look at her and say, “Well, for you it was worth it, any hurt is worth it.” I don’t really want her to see me like this. She gets impatient, taps her finger on the counter, and says in an exasperated voice, “Mom!” God, today just let me feel what I feel.

I keep reaching for Finn. He doesn’t know the day. I think he wanted to come here. But how could I? I’m supposed to be in love, aren’t I? Then what are all these feelings that keep welling up inside me, that make me feel like I want to break? It can’t be that I’m really in love and I’m still haunted by all these old feelings. Gah, feelings. Sometimes I wish I could just pack my emotions up in a truck and ship it further west on the train. I’d be a premium shipping rate if they could be good and gone. Better to be a dried up old lady of fifty than to walk around perpetually haunted and lame like this. I feel like I just limp around all over this town. I’m just not good at living, when you come right down to it. I’m not tough enough. Too light. So light I feel like I’ll break apart and blow away. Some days I wish that would happen.

 

164 / 365 – Two Fathers

FINN TILLARY 

I should stop comparing them, but I do more and more. My two fathers. The one who fathered me, with my mother. And the other, the one who ‘raised’ me, if that’s the right word. Guided. 

I never knew that much of Mr. Vanek’s story until now. But I knew it. I knew he had come from far away, and I had an idea that he had lived through things. I didn’t know what. Just the sound of the names of places I heard over the years — Prague, which he sometimes called Praha, and Odessa and Sebastopol, and places you couldn’t pronounce. I wondered what it would be like. I knew, because he was different from everyone else. He thought things were funny when other people didn’t. “Oh, I just opened your transmission and the gears fell out in pieces and they don’t make this transmission anymore.” Owner would get a little agitated, if you know what I mean. He’d laugh. “Oh, we’ll figure something out.” He was always figuring something out. With a smile.

My Dad already had it all figured out. He wasn’t figuring anything, just given the plan, giving the orders. “Finn, if you do this and this other thing, and then work hard at this, you’ll have a great future.” He never looked like he was having a great future, even though everyone in town respected him so much. He was never satisfied. I got tired of not satisfying him. Maybe Christine felt like she was meeting his standards, I don’t know. I know I never did. I only ever heard that I had done something good when it was far in the past.

So those were my two ‘fathers.’ I wonder what I owe them. To which one do I owe the honor that it talks about in the commandments? From which can I just walk away?

Jackie said I’m too bitter. She said maybe I shouldn’t expect so much from them. How many kids grow up with fathers who really ‘raise’ them? I thought Laura’s father did. But maybe Jackie is right.

163 / 365 – Fix

SARAH STRASBERG

I was lonely. It was more lonely with him there. More lonely with him beside me in the bed, for years really, a husband but not a husband. Lonely with him sleeping on the couch in the front room, in our apartment in Boston. Lonely with him in the other room here. He made me lonely. But I could live with that.

I thought I had to live with that. You read about how kids need their fathers. How girls, especially, need their fathers. Deadbeat dads, they are terrible. They are ruining the fabric of our society.

Well, what about the mother — the mother who says, I will push the father aside, because I’ve decided I no longer love him, or I love someone else, or I’m lonely and I don’t want anyone at all. What’s the difference? It’s still one parent depriving her child of the other parent, of the other parent’s time and love. I just couldn’t do that. Not for the longest time.

It wasn’t until I thought he was a danger to her that I knew I had to end it. Or, maybe, as my girlfriend back in Boston says, that I had the guts to end it. But people don’t know. Not even friends know. Especially friends. Your friends, if they love you, would like you to think that what’s important is your own happiness, that if I had just removed my husband from the equation, all would be better, since he was making me so miserable, literally trying to wreck me psychologically. But it isn’t like that at all. Maybe that would have made sense when I was still single. When you’ve brought a daughter into the world, she comes into a web of family, friends, places, stretching across generations and hearts and geography. You don’t just pluck out one strand of that web and “fix” it.

162 / 365 – Darkness and Light

FINN TILLARY

A steamy night. A storm roared up through here just as the sun was ready to set, dumped rain in sheets and the wind tore at the house. Knocked the power out. I’m alone in the house. Looking out east toward town there’s not a light anywhere, except a dim distant glow of some safety lights at the plant. It’s dead dark.

And then it isn’t. The clouds have parted. The moon isn’t up yet, but the prairie is bright with starlight. Looking out in the yard, I can see the big branch down on the box elder where my old swing was hung. I can see the lines of the furrows in the field, crystal strands of standing water, reflecting the glow off the clouds, the sky. The shelterbelts at the horizon are like dark hashmarks against the star-splattered sky.

I always loved the prairie in the dark, growing up. Like that moment when we would drive out the lake and we first turned off the headlights of the truck that had lit the dirt track, the stand of box elder where we liked to park, the beam that sometimes skimmed the surface of the lake. When I shut off the truck that world suddenly disappeared, and slowly another one appeared, one in shadows, the world that persisted before, when there was no fire and no electricity and gasoline engines powering lights and fancy electronics. The simpler world.

A few weeks ago the power went out while I was at Sarah’s house. We were in her bedroom, with a low lamp on, and then it went out. We had been talking and suddenly when the light flickered and then went out we went quiet, as if we had needed the light from the lamp to speak and listen. But then the light of the moon filled the room, a deep serene blue. We were there again, but the room was different. We were quiet and you could hear the ran softly falling in the trees out back of the house, the low rumble of the storm as it wandered off to the east. Sarah said, “I love the quiet of rain at night.” And I was happy because it seemed like she knew this, about darkness, about how it blinds you but then opens up the world.

I missed this the short time I was in Chicago. There were so many lights, the sky was orange. There were no stars, just the starlight of lights on poles, lights aimed off buildings, flashing signs. It was as if the people in the city would go to any length to keep the night away. Now if I was awake at night and I couldn’t sleep, I was anxious, instead of listening quietly to the night’s sounds. It was is if, by chasing away the night, they chased away everything from the daylight, too.

 

161 / 365 – Crows

FRED VANEK

There’s a little patch of grass out my window. I looked up and there’s a crow walking across the grass there. He takes these big steps and his head bobs back and forth as he walks. I think it’s a he. He’s looking around. I wonder what he’s doing.

Then a second crow swoops down from the oak tree growing up at the edge of the grass. Lands right next to the other one, and now the two of them are marching across the grass together, still looking around. I don’t hear a sound. They look like they’re doing something together, marching in unison, but they don’t gesture or make a sound so I don’t know how they would be. They keep marching across the grass until they’re out of sight.

Sometimes I see these things, framed in my little window, and I wonder. I’ve never sat by a window, since I was a boy and I had to stay indoors for sabbath. I think how things like this have been going on for years while I’ve been working, unaware. Crows filling the trees, and then flying down marching across the grass, looking for whatever it is that crows want. Life is busy and going on all around and I wouldn’t see it if I didn’t have it framed in this little window.

160 / 365 – Watched

JOHN NAGEL

They’re drilling a new well, south of where we’ve been working. It’s almost an hour’s drive from the apartment we’ve been renting. We have to get up earlier. This morning Myers was hung over and I could barely get him up. I didn’t think we were going to make it. He slept half the way there, even on the roughest parts of the roads, like when it dipped down into a draw and the road turned into a stream bed.

I think we were on Indian land. After awhile the farms started to look different. Poorer, I guess. Not these big farms with five or six grain bins and big metal sheds and lots of equipment parked. They were small houses, yards full of old cars, or clusters of houses. That’s where the roads got bad.

I was following directions that were like the kind of directions my granddad used to give. Y’know, like, “Turn left after you get to the top of the big hill and you see one big box elder tree that’s standing there all by itself, and then go down a mile or maybe two until you pass a little lean-to shed that’s falling over, then look for a road curve sign …” That kind of thing. One of the guys had a little box, a GPS he called it, and it would tell you where you were. He said, “You’re gonna need one of these.” I asked him how much it was and he said it cost him a couple hundred dollars in Denver and I said, “They don’t pay me enough to buy a thing like that.” But this morning I wasn’t sure.

I’ll learn the roads. We finally did find it. I had missed one turn and we had had to go back and find the route again, but we weren’t the last ones to get there. Myers woke up right before we came over the last hill and saw the crew out ahead. I didn’t know he was awake until he said, “Coffee, I need coffee.” There was a cup in the console that had gotten cold already but he drank it up. He said, “God, that’s awful,” but he was really sucking it down.

There was a cluster of little houses not even a hundred yards from where they had graded the land flat for us to work. I wanted to say, “What is this, someone’s backyard?” But you don’t say that. That’s one of the things you don’t talk about, except maybe joking with your buddy off where no one can hear. Today was about unloading. There were flatbeds circled around, loaded down with pipe, with steel rails, with some of the pumps and tanks. Helping get it off with the forklifts and cranes and set down on wooden blocks and ties. I kept looking back up at the house. About mid-morning two kids wandered down the hill. Two girls. One was barefoot and her bright yellow shirt had a big stain on it. The other had on a t-shirt with a big American flag and bright running shoes. Their hair was sticking out all over. It looked like what Myers hair would have looked like if it was long, after the night he had. They stood back and watched us. Nobody said anything. I got the idea that we’re just supposed to pretend they’re not there. We’re just out here by ourselves, doing our job. We’re not on anybody’s land. We just happened to be driving around and we found this place and we’re pretty sure there’s gas somewhere way down below the surface. That’s kind of our story, and we just go at our work. But I kept looking up and the girls were still watching.

159 / 365 – Mud

JACKIE CAMPBELL

We finally got some rain. I wasn’t expecting it. I was up in Newcastle when the sky went dark off to the northwest. It came down on us pretty quickly. I was checking on the cows — they had broken through a section of fence and gotten into the back pasture. I had pulled the truck off the road when I saw them and was starting to think, how was I going to get them to move out, when I heard the thunder rumble and thought I might as well get out of the way. Half the time they don’t seem to even notice it, but every once in awhile one gets spooked and starts to trot off somewhere and that gets them started. Pretty soon they’re all running off. I stayed on the other side of the fence and sure enough, when the second thunderclap sounded, a foal started to run up the bank by the draw there. Then his mother went after him — I’m guessing that was his mother — and another and another. Pretty soon they’re all running up the bank and out of sight. Oh well, I thought, at least it’s to somewhere higher and sort of in the direction of the barn.

Then the rain came, like someone was suddenly dumping a bucket over me. I sat in the truck and let it pass. Even with the wipers on high, I could hardly see out the window. I thought it would let up in just a few minutes. The way the rain’s been this spring, it’s like it just gets started falling and then remembers it’s supposed to be somewhere else and it blows off and leaves pretty quick. That’s what I was expecting. This storm was different. I sat and sat. I turned on the radio, tuned in the country station from over in Minot. There was a good song on and I was hardly paying attention. Then another song. Pretty soon I thought, heck it’s been half an hour, what’s going on?

It’s been so dusty lately but the rain really soaked in. When the rain slowed down to a regular deluge, I turned the wheel and aimed for the road and hit the gas. The thing just spun mud out behind. I was shooting big clods of black mud behind me, sliding slowly down lower.

I think I might have gotten stuck but Ray Weld passed by just then and I waved and he stopped. Had a tow chain in the back of his pickup. Had me out of there in just a few minutes. I think he got his jeans pretty muddied up, though. I owe him one. And I will have to think about getting one of those new cellphone things that people are getting. I never thought I needed one but I wonder how long I might have been stuck if Ray hadn’t come along. Or how wet, if I’d had to walk to the nearest farm in all that rain.