Equal to Fertility

By Michael Welch

U.FINAL.webp to that day, I’d only seen my Bio-Dad (that’s what Ma called him) twice in my life. Neither time did I know it was him until later. Bio, a put-down of the worst type whenever it sizzled on Ma’s lips, though, when I was a girl, it also sounded sort of like a superhero. For all the information I had ever gotten about him, he should have been Null Man.

The first time I saw him was in seventh grade. It was outside the 7-11 over on Plethadora and he nodded at me, which made me mistake him for a perv, look away, and clamp my arms across my chest. I recall a wide-brimmed hat shadowing most of his face, long skinny legs and badly cleaned work boots. Later I overheard Ma and her best friend Dottie attempting to whisper on the phone—that “he” was back to town.

Township is a small enough place that everyone knows everything about everybody, or can think they do, and since Ma was a pretty big figure on both sides of the gossip fence, word spread quickly about the visitation of the man who had disappeared so long ago. You would have thought I could dredge up some info about him then, right? But for about three days people only gave me a wide berth. Ma must have mobilized good, too, because Bio evaporated as quickly as he materialized and by then my mortified reaction was good riddance.

The next time I saw him was when I was legal eighteen, and Dave—my boss, and owner of Dave’s Paradise Club—came up to me after I’d gotten offstage and handed me the business card of a man from Grange. “Says he’s your father,” said Dave, as if he had named some standard occupation, like plumber or truck driver. I recalled a guy sitting in back, beyond the light of the stage, face shadowed and angular, same long, stick-figurish legs—and sure enough, the name matched up: Thomas Newsome. The card only had the place, and a phone number, and the words “Chickens, Ducks, Mostly Rabbits. Since I doubted he’d created some mutant breed of rabbit that wasn’t all rabbit, I decided he simply wasn’t very smart. I sat there in the dressing room for a long minute then left out the backdoor for Dairy Queen to go hug Sam.

Sam took one look at my face, broke away from the Blizzard machine, then pulled me into his meaty chest the way he does. “Fuck him, Hon,” he purred. “What kind of guy goes to a strip club to see his daughter, anyway?”

Bikinis, Sam,” I reminded him, “—it’s ordinance!”

“Listen,” he said, his tone changing and his famous baby blues staring into me with sudden depth and seriousness. “I know you’re going to think this is unnecessary, but I think he and I should have a little talk.”

“No, Sam. You’ll break him.”

“Not that. Just to, you know…”

“No, Sam. I don’t.”

Ask him.”

I stared at him in growing disbelief. Sam was no longer the football star who transformed Dairy Queen into a big display case, girls ogling him through the glass—now he was manager, a solid job. He had even been using terms like “starter home” and “tax deduction.” But, corny as it sounds, and even though I play it down, to me Sam can still glow. “Sam—if you’re going to say you want to go ask Bio for my hand, I’ll kill you. He’s never had my hand. You do!”

“I apologize,” Sam said. “It’ll only take a minute. It really don’t matter what he says anyway—it’s just a man thing.”

I’ll admit, “man thing” looked so adorable on his lumpy lips, I could do nothing but look on as Sam spun, darted out the door and disappeared across the lot. Within two minutes he was back. “Disappeared,” he said. “Thin air.”

“Yeah. He can do that.”

*

The way eighty-five percent of Sam’s big ideas used to, I was sure the whole ask for my hand issue would blow over, thus I sure wasn’t going to mention it to Ma.

But then it didn’t blow over. After putting it off as long as I could, I casually told Ma to meet me over at Dottie’s on lunch break. Dottie’s Halloween Emporium was a fancy name for a long-abandoned Hollywood Video that Dottie rents out every October to sell costumes and what she likes to call partyfanalia, and where Ma and her like to hang out and giggle at what customers reach for but don’t buy, as if this is some huge clue to their hidden longings.

I spotted Ma over in the corner, where she stood in front of a mirror with of all things two Cinderella gowns—one white, one beige—draped over her chest for comparison. Cinderella—maybe a not so subtle clue to her longing. From the side, with her arms raised, Ma looked pretty frumpy. Same big hair, high cheekbones and full buxomness as me, but her lower face given way to gravity, gone loose, its guy wires now reserved only for high drama. Hoping to keep these guy wires slack, I walked up to her, gave her a peck, and bided my time.

I checked one of the tags. “Seventy-nine ninety-five… top rack… since when do you have that kind of money to toss away on one wear?”

Ma smiled demurely and said. “Oh, come on. The Dottie-Discount means forty. And not for me, silly.”

My mind was back on what I needed to tell her, I was only half-listening. “Ma,” I said, lowering my voice. “Sam, he’s such a sweetie, he—”

“No cold feet, hmm? Oh, why would you have? You two were forged in heaven for each other.” She nodded at the white dress and returned the beige to the rack, then faced me with brimming, sparkly eyes. “Well, what do you think?”

Something about the way she said it. “You have to be kidding me, Mother,” I said. “Got to be. You want me to wear a Cinderella dress for my wedding?”

“Oh come on—you said it was top rack.”

“For a friggin’ Halloween dress!”

Ma made her pouty face. “One wear. You said it yourself. Truth is, we’re pretty broke—which is not pretty at all.”

Before I could stop her, she held the dress up to the mirror and shoved me up behind it.

I stared blankly at myself—for the first time as bride. At my knee, a miniature Dracula had appeared. I picked him off his feet, spun him, and shoved him in the direction he’d come. “Ma, Bio showed up at the club, left me his card,” I blurted. “Sam isn’t budging on this one: he’s going to drive to Grange and ask him for my hand.”

Ma looked at me, panicky, then deep sad. I lifted the Cinderella dress off the floor from where she’d dropped it, dusted it off, and as a concession stood beside her and slowly brought the dress over me again.

We stood there, eyes weary from exertion, looking at ourselves in the mirror. “We just don’t need him back in our lives, Sweetie.”

“He won’t be, Ma. It’ll be alright.”

Ma straightened herself. “Your neck looks like a swan’s.”

*

When I heard Sam’s pick-up pull up to the house, I sprung up and checked through the window for his gait. When Sam is worried about something, his heels drag. But this time I couldn’t tell. His movement was as impenetrable as the Grange mud on the truck’s running boards. Impenetrable Man.

By the time Sam reached the door, I was back on the couch. I called “Come in,” and rubbed my eyes like I had dozed. It wasn’t that I was being sneaky, it’s just that the best way to get Sam talking is to remove all pressure. If he senses you have questions, he’ll just wait for them, and then you’ve entered monosyllable and grunt territory.

“Oh, hey,” I said to him casually, as he came into the room and stood.

I stared at him without staring him—I felt him. I felt his shaggy hair, his muscled cheeks, his tentative shuffling, knowing well that despite talk of “tax deductions” and “customer outreach”, what he most longed for was to be back at my ninth grade locker, catching a quick kiss, readying to walk me to my next class even though it will make him late for his. My gaze went to the living room window where—across the street and two down—I could see his mom’s house, the one he was finally ready to move out of. In his upstairs bedroom, still there by the curtain, was the Young Astronomers telescope I gave him for his fourteenth birthday so he could watch me undress. Later on, I would hang a butterfly pendant from my curtain rod when the coast was clear.

Sam stood there, thumbs calmly in pockets, until I couldn’t take it anymore.  “So…?” I said.

“Well, it’s a rabbit farm, alright. Lots of rabbits. Didn’t see many chickens or a single duck.”

“Uh huh. And what about humans? Maybe a strange skinny guy you were going to ask an important question to?”

He gauged me hesitantly then shrugged. “Sure. I just didn’t know if you wanted to get into it full throttle.”

It…? I didn’t quite get the “it.” It sounded way more specific than what I was prepared for, which was a basic Sam-rendition of a 10-hour roundtrip to a place called Grange with an awkward 5-minute conversation sandwiched in the middle. “I’m just asking, Sam. I had no idea it was a question of changing gears.”

“It’s not. I guess the trip went real well. Yeah, it did. He was a good guy, your dad. We talked.”

“Well good, Samuel, I’m really glad talking occurred,” I told him, as my heart sort of sucked in and held its breath at this new something in the air.

I can’t remember exactly where things went from there, I really can’t. There was blur. He said a few things, I felt myself getting tenser and tenser, heard my voice yelling, and then I was running down the road. It was about a mile to the True Value Ma worked at, and I ran nonstop, the whole way listening for Sam’s truck so I could turn and kick dirt at it. But he didn’t come. Nada. By the time I burst upon Ma in the gardening aisle I’d had time to boil everything down to three leaden words.

“Wedding is off!”

An eerie calm—either shock or before the storm—settled upon the shelves of lopping shears, hoses and sprinkler heads. “Just… tell me,” Ma said, with shocking restraint.

I sat on a stack of soil bags and tried to piece together some of it. I told her how sing-songily Sam and her “Bio-ex” had evidently gotten on. What a—Sam’s friggin’ four-dollar word—commendable guy he was. How he had even offered Sam some delivery work. But Bio hadn’t stopped there. He had offered up his thoughts on marriage. About how a marriage could get away from a guy. How, once they started to slip, sometimes there was nothing much a guy could do. How you could even lose your daughter. Get your heart broke. How he had longed to see me, even sent money all of these years, but been barred. “It’s like he put Sam under some kind of spell. Now Sam says he thinks we should wait. He said ‘things are perfect as they are.’”

I knew there was accusation in my voice, like a lot of this was Ma’s fault—that whatever she had long ago let this waxy creature pull over on her was living on to haunt me. “And what’s he talking about—been barred? Money?”

Ma was ready for the question, readier maybe than she should have been. With her eyes set on a sale card for boxes of bat guano, she said, “You just never mind that. Aren’t you getting a good taste of what his influence does?”

Before I could get a word in, she announced, “He’s like jungle rot, cutting off a toe isn’t enough—all ten got to go. Then don’t forget to set him on fire!” And with that she turned and began marching for the door, left me right there sitting.

“Where the hell are you going?” I called out behind her.

She turned and looked back at me, puzzled, like it should have been plain. “To set him on fire.”

 *

Although she resisted, I told Ma that it was me had to go hash things out with Bio. Ma’s occasional fits were well known around Township (pretty much every cashier, bank teller, and meter maid had experienced her short fuse first hand), but I knew she was more bluster than bite and this time her anger seemed even more brittle than usual, as if what she really wanted was for me to calm her down and forget all about the incident. My anger wasn’t brittle, and when she saw this a worried look came into her eyes. Three days later—once Cheyanne agreed to take my lunch shift at Paradise—I left Ma marching between rooms like she was picketing, popped in a Lady Gaga CD, and set off in my Bug for Grange.

I don’t know how much of my anger had to do with now, and how much had to do with forever. What kind of man would walk out on his family, then after all of these years choose to meddle in his daughter’s marriage plans? And what had he done to Ma that made her still scared of him? And now Sam was calling him a nice guy? It was weird, Sam having met my so-called father, and me, never.

Grange was a long drive, too long. By the time I reached the small sign off a winding, two-lane road, I was sweaty and soon had to crank up my window against the dust as the Bug took ineptly to the rutted dirt road. I’d had way too much time to mull things over, lost a lot of my edge, and lapsed into wondering exactly what I was going to say when he popped open his door. I tried to reassure myself that after all these years I was at least finally going to find out something about him, or find out that there wasn’t much to him—but what was it that I wanted, his friggin’ blessing? What the fuck.

Some of my anger, or maybe it was concern, had more to do with Sam (who’d spent the whole week calling to mend things, but each time, still hypnotized, slipped into talking about rabbit delivery as if there was actually an opportunity there). I loved Sam, but for the first time I felt some fear. Sam should have sloughed off Bio’s opinions as easily as he used to shed linebackers, and yet he’d been duped. I had never gotten quite this image of Sam—rather than hard-working guy who never meant anyone harm, a guy who might be consistently being taken advantage of by the duplicitous.

Grange, it turned out, wasn’t even a real town, but no more than a general store, hub to more dirt roads that headed upwards into even deeper woods. The proprietor of the store knew Bio’s farm and gave me directions. As the car began to climb, I decided on a new tack, to at least start off light, treat Bio as the nonentity he was and to gloss over his negative impact on Sam until I got a sense of how things were going to go. “Hi,” I practiced. “I heard you met my fiancée… yeah, we’ve been together forever… great guy, isn’t he?”

Up ahead at a fork in the road, a faded, dangling wooden sign read “Rabbits.”

After another quarter mile along an even narrower road, branches snatching at my windows, a house appeared, really more an accumulation of connected, sagging sheds. To one side was a fenced-in, wide dirt yard with clumps of dirt that looked like cow turds, until a few of them moved. Rabbits. Slow-moving rabbits. A lot of them. Hopping everywhere, including in and out of an assortment of long dead pick-ups and rusty machinery. The lone shack inside the fenced area that the rabbits were avoiding must have been the slaughterhouse.

I climbed from the car and was met by the sweetish smell of decaying rabbit crap, then began walking toward the closest thing I could see to a front door.

I knocked, but the hollow, rattley door seemed to absorb the sound. I hit it again with the side of my hand.

At first I heard nothing. Then came what might have been very slow footsteps, moving around inside but not necessarily for the door. I wondered how often anyone visited, how long Bio might have been ambling around the property alone. There was sure no sign of a woman’s touch, though I didn’t know what kind of woman would live on a remote rabbit farm.

Then the door swung open and I was looking up at a long, narrow face, not at all what my mind had placed on top of the lanky, stick-figurish body I’d seen those two other times. I’d imagined a pocked, hard-looking face creased with lines, but the face above me, looming down, was gray and sort of ghostly, with wide-set moony eyes, eyes that winced as they fell upon me. I watched a thin-lipped mouth form around my name. “Jenn,” it said, formally, politely, no question mark, which made it far too intimate.

I hadn’t prepared myself for the spasm that came with standing before my technical-father for the first time. “Sam’s a great guy,” I said, like an idiot. “We’ve been together forever. So why the fuck are you meddling!”

Bio stood there, awkwardly hunched, stilled, his face frozen where he’d set it in a painfully welcoming half-smile. “All this,” he repeated, quietly, with concentration, as if he knew they were important words but needed more time to translate them. In a vain attempt at clarity, he said, “I know. I just showed up at your place of work out of nowhere and left that card. I can see how that was unfair to you. I almost didn’t. So many times, I didn’t.”

I straightened my shoulders to keep the conversation from going further sideways. “I mean with Sam.”

“Sam,” he repeated, and fell into chewing on this word too.

“Sam!” I shouted. And there it was, a flash: that this is what happened to certain men who married and spawned only to stumble into feelings they couldn’t handle and run away—they became obsolete and brain dead.

Bio’s face seemed to be struggling not to let me down, I’ll give it that. “We talking about a muscular kid? Real good-natured?”

I shook my head in disbelief. “Uhh—yeah. Also, the guy I was set to marry before you steered him away. The one decent enough to drive all the way here and treat you like a legitimate father, crazy as that is.”

“I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes and held his temple. “I remember it clearly now. He showed up and seemed curious about the farm. I did my best to be polite, figured he was after some work. Then, you’re right, he did start to ramble about a fiancée—he just never mentioned you per se. Now it all makes more sense.”

“Never mentioned me?” What the fuck? “But he said you told him all about how your and Ma’s marriage got away from you… how in the process you even lost me, blah-blah-blah… even some bull about being barred and sending me—”

“Well, I guess I did say all that. I just didn’t know we were talking about the same person, about you. Even when he just called.”

“Called,” I repeated, in new disbelief that Sam was following up on a career in rabbits without consulting me.

“To see if maybe he—I mean, you two—could have the ceremony out here.”

“Here.”

“He said, ‘Rabbits equal fertility.’ No secret there.”

I stood with nothing to say. Beneath my feet, the old, dull-painted porch planks seemed thin. Something about Bio quoting my potential husband, the both of them weighing in and agreeing on issues of fruitfulness, well, it was worse than fucked. But all I could manage was, “He said he wanted the wedding? Here?”

Bio nodded in the direction that my finger was evidently pointing.

“Well, not there,” he said, “the turd. He mentioned that far hill, beneath that big willow.” He measured what must have been my alarmed face then became cautious again. “Don’t worry. I totally understand if you don’t want me there. The idea is just the hill itself. The day’s about you.”

It took me about a minute, but finally I nodded my agreement. “Yeah. It is, isn’t it? Where it should be… if it should be. Whether I would ever have it anywhere near you or this stinking turd.”

What a concept: about me.

*

Driving home, my body felt spent while my mind raced. What lingered the most was: if Bio hadn’t known Sam was talking about me, this meant that he’d confessed what he had—how losing his daughter had broken his heart… how he longed to see—without ulterior motive, and with a sincerity that had moved Sam. I didn’t know what to do make of this, and when it really started to get to me, I pulled into a truck stop. I had only gone 61 miles.

I knew this much—Ma and me had to have a serious talk, and not the usual kind, all zigzags with a bunch of yelling. I needed to know more about why Bio had left us, the circumstances, and whether there was ever any barring.

I must have dozed off. When I stirred awake, the brick bathroom in front of me had fallen into foreboding darkness and my cell on the passenger seat was vibrating. It was Sam, and I saw that he had called six times, Ma four. The phone read 3:11. I picked up, told him I was fine, would be home in a few hours. Ma I decided to leave on ice.

When I finally pulled along Plethadora, the sun was coming up, the line of fast food stores appearing pastel and vulnerable in the soft morning light. Paradise was sealed-up tight and I wondered who had taken my night shift (Dave was going to be pissed). The one place that was lit was DQ, where even from a few blocks away I saw Sam’s sturdy shape moving about beyond the rectangular serving window. He was busy with morning prep, all the countless tasks I’d heard so much about over the years.

Sam was nothing if not consumed with details, from the necessary heat of the deep fryer, the benefit of a 10lb. versus a 25lb. dumbbell slid down a mop handle to aid cleaning, or, before that, the right technique to deliver a shoulder pad just beneath an opponent’s collar bone. I recalled his first managerial decision a few months ago—to open DQ during prep before any other places were open. “Why not?” he had said. “Even if it means just a few extra sales. I’m in there anyway. It’s the little decisions increase business. What do you think about coffee with a Blizzard shot?”

Sam was also nothing if not a creature of pattern, which meant that my absence would have thrown him off his game, if not made him downright injury prone. As I turned into the parking lot and my headlights flashed the glass, his face looked desperate as he stared into the glare.

I walked into the restaurant as I had about four thousand times. Sam came out from the kitchen to hug me and sent a glance toward the corner to let me know we were not alone. At a table, in her usual bathrobe, near-sighted as a mole, Mrs. Abercrombie patiently fished with her fork for floating chunks of Reese’s. She was his lone Blizzard-Dolloped Coffee success story.

As Sam hugged me, I felt the heat of his breath on my neck, but the hug wasn’t our usual collapsing sort of hug. In his mind, the wedding was potentially more on than ever, and he may have been jittery about how to re-propose. Me? It’d been a long drive. Two long drives, actually, the last slightly aided by a car-seat-snooze. I felt stinky, unkempt, and confused.

“Hi, Sam,” I said.

“Hi, Babe,” he said. “I’m so glad you’re back and okay. So glad that—”

He paused as Mrs. Abercrombie scuttled to the bathroom. Or so I thought, hearing the click of the bathroom door. But then a voice echoed down the hall.

“Why she can return a call to you, and not to me, leaving me to worry myself sick for those extra hours…”

“Your Ma,” whispered Sam, as if it were necessary. “She was camped out at the door when I pulled up.”

Ma appeared, stopped and stared at me. Without missing a beat, she said, “Well, hootie-hoo. Look who’s back. What have you got to say?”

“Ma—lower your voice a little, will ya? Give Mrs. A some space to eat in peace. She’s a paying customer.”

Ma paused and looked at me in a strange way, her mascara-heavy lids falling as she tried to re-gather herself. Maybe, there before her, I looked more formidable than usual—Formidable Broad. Anyway, I wasn’t about to let her think this was going to be some apologetic debriefing. “Ever think it’s me in need of some info?” I told her.

Ma continued to look strange, sort of stunned and unable to meet my eyes. She could only stare over my shoulder instead, like the trick kids use in staring contests. Maybe I had come on too formidably.

“No way. No damn way,” she said finally, recovering.

Yes way, Ma. Absolutely-friggin’-way.”

“Crap,” said Sam.

It wasn’t until I saw Mrs. Abercrombie pause from eating and, spoon stilled, stare beyond my shoulder too, that I sensed something might be wrong.

I turned and looked beyond the bank of windows to the parking lot, to where Bio was nearing the DQ front door.

“No damn way…” Ma said again.

A group of boys who looked like they were on their way to Township High, pushed through the door just ahead of Bio and stared at the overhead menu.

“Out!” said Sam.

They stared blankly at him.

Out!” Sam shouted.

Then they were gone.

“How manly of you, Sam,” I whispered, surprised by my own calm. “Now let’s see how you do with adults.”

“You’re here for no good reasons, Tom Newsome!” came Ma’s shriek. “Unforgiven and unwelcome is what you are!”

Bio had stopped, puzzled first by the quick-exiting boys, then by the sudden sight of Ma marching toward him. His jaw dropped. He managed to say the word, “Bet.” Then, “I didn’t expect you to be here. You neither, Jenn. I was only going to talk with this young man, make sure he understood the gravity of”—he paused here, clearly afraid of what he was stepping into—“of the location he was considering.”

“You didn’t call me Bet, did you? You don’t call me Bet, Tom Newsome. You don’t call me anything!”

Bio turned and looked at me, unsure what to do next. I wondered how long it had been since he had even laid eyes on Ma (my entire life, minus a few months?) much less be bum-rushed by her under the stark lights of a fast food restaurant. If a photo had marked the moment, I bet he and Ma both would have studied it over and over again, but there in front of each other they could barely raise their eyes now.

“Now, it don’t have to be like this,” Bio said, clearly avoiding any proper noun. “It never did.”

“You found a wormhole and like a worm you’re slithering back through!”

There was a pause. I knew I had to quit marveling over these two humans in front of me (that they were actually rejoining something from before… that it was the first time we, as a family unit, had ever stood together) and to step up as the unintended organizer of the event.

“Ma,” I said. “Hold on. Why he’s here—whether worm, lonely, or just in need of a damn road trip—isn’t the issue. Let me fill you in. It seems that the wedding”—I glanced over at Sam and shrugged lamely—“might be back on. And this location thing you may have just missed, well, I can’t say I was ever thrilled at having my wedding in the lot of Ben Franklin’s, free tent or not. So. We might possibly have it out at Bio’s, on a hill, under a nice tree.”

Possibly?” said Sam.

“Bio?” asked Bio.

These I ignored.

I looked back at Ma, who looked even more jittery than before. Her eyes darted back and forth between my eyes and mouth, as if wondering who I was.

I remained determined: “Now, Ma. I need to get to the bottom of a few things while we’re all here together.”

Ma’s lips parted slightly, in shock, convinced now that I had switched teams on her. “You want to do that here? Under glass in a gossipy place like Township?”

“Ma—you can’t put it off forever. Sam’s not going to let anyone in, and it’s only Mrs. Abercrombie. …CAN YOU HEAR US, MRS. ABERCROMBIE??

Mrs. Abercrombie’s full attention had returned to her cup and remained there.

“See, Ma? No witnesses. No lip readers, no hidden mikes. So I gotta know here and now—was he just a dead beat, or was there more to it?”

Bio stood unmoving, moony eyes wide, absently hunched forward as if he wanted to know too. I thought of the rumors that had circulated about him over the years, not only dead beat but more glamorous ones—bounty-hunter, doing a stint in Folsom Prison for a string of bank robberies, spotted strung-out beneath a bridge in Memphis. Never rabbit farmer in Grange.

The guy wires of Ma’s cheeks loosened and slipped, and her face fell into a look of candidness I had only seen a few times, and always when she thought she was alone. Quietly, she said. “He never loved us, isn’t that enough? We would have been on our own either way.”

“Now that’s not true, Mame. I never wanted to leave, especially not then. I loved this girl. And you too,” said Bio. “And then you kicked me out and kept me away, you and that lawyer, those threats of legalities that would have made life here impossible. For me and her.”

Ma stood silent and still, stared into the linoleum, until finally, as if she owed and explanation, said, “Inappropriate was what he was.”

Bio, with a firmness I hadn’t heard, said, “I don’t know what you think you saw. I’m only hoping you have the decency to tell her that maybe you got it wrong.”

I stared back and forth between the two faces. The space between seemed like a veil, too charged to touch. I must have ceased breathing because my throat felt dry and constricted. I felt Sam’s hand on my arm.

Never loved me. You didn’t have love in you! And then I walked into that room and you were kissing that little girl. Kissing her all over. You looked at me and the guilt was written all over your face!”

“That maybe you got it wrong,” Bio said again, but weaker this time. He turned to me with pain etched on his face. “Maybe she’s right about the marriage. But you, you broke me open. For the first time in my whole dumb life, I… ”

But whatever he wanted to say, he couldn’t finish. And then he was turning for the door.

*

I can talk about it now—but that next week was a silent and terrible one for me. I didn’t know what to think, or to feel. I stayed over at Sam and his mother’s place and didn’t go out, didn’t even look out the window in the direction of my house. But the truth was everything might have slowly blown over, if only because it got to the point that I just wanted the whole situation behind me (as I had back in middle school after my first glimpse of Bio).

Might have blown over. Until, week’s end, when I finally ventured out, I began getting word about what Ma had been up to. Freaking out was more like it—and with far more edge than ever before. First she got in a shouting match with a bitchy young bank teller that escalated to the point that a cop had to walk Ma out by the elbow. Then she dialed Dave, called him every reprobate-word she knew, and accused him of luring me down hell’s path. She even marched into the DQ and called Mrs. A a “spy.”

When I finally entered our house, Ma was over at the kitchen counter cutting on a cutting board. I moved across the room and kissed her on the back of the hair. Through her shoulder blades I felt her stiff motions. When she didn’t turn around, I went and sat on the couch. Finally, the cutting stopped, and Ma came and joined me.

Her eyes looked different, sort of like when she used to smoke, that calm tiredness after she took a drag. “You’re going to ask me,” she said, “and the plain answer is, I saw what I saw.”

“Well, then why are you acting so crazy lately, Ma? It makes you look suspicious. Like, blame or be blamed.”

Ma waited, looking into her lap as if studying an equation. “You don’t get it, Hon,” she said slowly, with only mild defensiveness. “Things were bad already. We were on our own, him just walking around like a big nuthin’, not even working, spending all of his time down at The Office.” She sent me a firm glance, like what she was about to say would hurt, but was necessary. “He didn’t even want a kid. Was dead set against it. Believe me, you only had a couple chances—but you were determined. When you delivered, he wasn’t even around.” When Ma looked up and saw me studying her, she seemed to realize this was stuff she’d told me before. “Anyway, the other, all I’ll say is someday you’ll understand a mother’s intuition.”

Ma’s neck straightened, the way it did when she knew she hadn’t quite proved her point, but expected you to believe her anyway, out of loyalty.

“But that’s not enough, Ma. That doesn’t get the door closed. You lobbed the grenade—now I need to know exactly.”

She tested the word, “Exactly…” didn’t seem to like it the taste, then said, “I already told you. Kissing you. On the back… on the butt.” Ma was shaking her head, though I don’t know if she realized it. “Like I said, the way he looked up at me when I walked in, the guilt. From a man who’d never bothered to look guilty before.”

I must have said something to her with my glance—again: that doesn’t get the door closed. More defensively, Ma said, “What did you want? Be raised in a loveless marriage? I just thank the stars you aren’t up against what I was. Don’t I wish I had a man with the body of Hercules and goo-goo eyes for me.”

“Stop, Ma,” I told her. “Just stop!”

Ma gathered herself, gave me a brazen look, and said, “Well, I was going to save it as a wedding present. But that money you mentioned? All twenty years of it, in a bank account, in your name—enough for a big down payment on a starter house.”

*

The sun was just tipping down, a washed-out pink due to field-burning season. We—Sam and I—were parked at The Point. A local joke. A mogul heaped and packed in the middle of the interminable cornfield by a farmer named D. Rhodes, in the expressed interest of providing a safe haven for high school kids looking to make out. Over the years, D. Rhodes had also—unsuccessfully—applied to the City Council for everything from a BMX track, to a Ferris wheel, to a small castle with moat.

“There she was, treating it like a wedding gift from her. Our money, all along. And do you remember that Cinderella dress idea? Because we were supposedly broke?” The words, as I spit them, tasted sour on my lips. I knew I wasn’t talking about what I needed to be talking about. “Let’s just do it, you and me, Sam. City Hall. Or Vegas. Or right here. Parentless.”

Sam too, knew I wasn’t talking about what I needed to be talking about. I could tell when he humored me. “City Hall… is the same building I got my hernia exam for fifteen years. Vegas… too glitzy and Elvisy. Here? Rhodes would treat it like the royal wedding, sell tickets.”

I shrugged. Sam waited. Then he let out a sigh, to signal a downshift. Gently, he said, “How could you not be confused about it all, Babe? Worse than confused. And whoever you do or don’t want at the wedding, and where—it’s your day.” He looked at me and, there against smoky pink sky, meditatively puffed his lips. “But maybe you need to talk to him. Just to get some closure.”

The word closure, coming from Sam, was about like tax deduction, it just didn’t fit. But I knew what he meant. “I don’t know, Sam. What would I get but more hard-to-trust words? We’ll see.”

Sam moved his hand to the inside of my thigh; not to start up anything, that was just a place he liked to keep it, absently, like a security blanket. Sam and I had come to The Point since the first day he drove, which would have been fourteen, but even back then we mostly sat back, looked at the horizon, talked. When other kids were all excited about groping and making out, we were already on to sex, but used my room for that.

I said, “He told me, rabbits equaled fertility. No secret there.”

“Who?”

Bio.”

“Wait,” Sam said. “He said ‘no secret there’—or are you saying it?”

“I don’t know, Sam,” I said, wondering how it had gotten so complicated. “He said it when I was out there, after getting off the phone with you.”

Sam didn’t say anything right off, which brought some claustrophobia into the Bug’s tight cab. Then I realized, with the talk of our new nest egg, he must have thought that I was trying to talk about kids. Kids were the last thing on my mind, but I found myself waiting, just to see what he’d say.

Then I changed my mind. I didn’t want to play games like that. I knew that Sam didn’t play games like that with me. “Maybe it’s just the word that’s on my mind. Fertility. About who or what’s in charge of it. Sometimes it seems like it just happens, on its own, no one in charge. I mean, your folks never even fought, then—poof—kid or not, marriage done with. Ma tells me, ‘he never even wanted a kid—but you were determined’, like it was something I did. Now, her and Bio can’t even look at each other, and instead of wisdom Ma and of Dottie play their snickery little games over at the emporium, spying on customers as they reach for costumes like the ones they put back are huge clues to secret identities. But who’s to say that some of those hidden parts don’t need to come out, to know ourselves fully enough not to make so many mistakes?”

“Whoa,” said Sam, doing his best to translate. “If by knowing yourself ‘fully enough,’ you mean dancing at Paradise, I sure hope you don’t think that’s a hidden part that needs to come out.”

I stopped and stared at Sam, as if he had just become a foreign object: a foreign object labeled Possessive Husband Suddenly Laying Down Law. “Now Sam, if you’re setting up to start telling me what I can or can’t do…”

Sam turned to me and fixed me with his wide eyes. “Let me finish, Babe,” he said. “Cause if you’re thinking you are perfect as you already are, if you’re thinking you are a mistake, well… I just want you to know that the way you handle yourself at Paradise, it’s a gift. It’s like you’re part work-of-art, part businesswoman, part cop—the customers all know not to disrespect you. How you work that, I’ll never know, but it’s amazing.”

I stared at Sam all over again. “Why Sam,” I said. “I always gave that credit to you, to them knowing you were a few doors down at the DQ ready to protect my honor.”

Sam remained serious, almost angry. “No, Babe—it’s all you. Even out-of-towners, who don’t know me from Adam, get it. You just have this graceful muscle to you. You’ve always had it.”

I smiled—how I was marrying the right man—and tried to let the sweetness of the moment linger, though that’s difficult for me.

“Anyway, Sam,” I said, quietly going back to my initial thought. “By hidden parts, I was thinking more about where people seem to get stuck. Him. How way back when, there in my room, there’s a possibility Ma caught him feeling something pure and innocent, maybe for the first time since he was a baby himself. But it was all too brittle. And next thing you know, she’s freaking out, and—lowest common denominator—he’s seeing what she’s seeing, and down the drain it all goes. Washed away. And twenty years later, last month, there’s Ma and Dottie giggling over Mrs. Sorvino reaching for a Mother Theresa, while across the street Bio’s working up the courage just to hand me his business card.

“Well, don’t worry,” Sam said, adjusting his hand on my thigh. “Cause we’ll be fifty. Still coming to this hill or some other. Just to talk.”

Nice, Sam.”

“And, Babe? I really think you two should talk.”

“Okay, Sam, I will.”

 *

It was probably a crazy idea, to try and talk to Bio and have the ceremony on the one-tree hill on the same morning. But even though he never quite put it into words, it became clear to me that the distant spot Sam had first glimpsed eons-ago when he’d driven nobly to Grange to “do the right thing,” remained his heart’s choice, a place pure and unique, his and mine. My ultimate thinking was, that it was a nice spot, and free, and far enough from Township for us to sneak away without much notice. And, sure… if we were going to make the long drive anyway, it only made sense to get it all done.

When I finally dug into the bottom of my purse for his crinkled card, and called, I kept it brief and sort of to an outline. I mentioned that, if it weren’t a bother, his hill might work after all. That what we were doing was really more of an elopement: just Sam and me, a few witnesses, and a minister Sam was going to dig up on craigslist. When I told Sam, “Yes, this Saturday,” he at first scrunched up his face at the rush of it, but by the time the weekend rolled around, he was all grins, optimistic as for a playoff game. We drove out to Grange early, the two of us, and before I knew it he was coming around to open the driver’s door for me, to gallantly stand aside in his tux and offer me the route across the muddy parking area toward Bio’s lopsided front door.

I didn’t feel at my best, light in the head, maybe because I hadn’t eaten. There are times, I think, when you slip into a slight altered state, but don’t know it until later. So I wouldn’t go off track while talking, I’d made myself a little mantra from a relaxation website I’d consulted earlier in the week, that claimed the key to staying thoughtful and open was lips-throat-heart. “Lips, throat, heart,” I whispered, as I rapped on his hollow door.

The footsteps inside came more quickly this time, as if he’d been sitting there waiting for me. The door opened and Bio stood above me, moony eyes batting against the morning light as if he hadn’t been out yet. “Are you alright, Jenn?” he asked. “You look a jittery. Real nice, but jittery.”

I rolled my eyes. “Long story.” I stepped back. “It’s a Cinderella dress. Ma’s idea. Sam and I are saving money.”

“Oh,” he said. “Is your mother…”

“Here? No—just Sam. Ma actually won’t be… well, like I said on the phone, it’s just going to be real small. Thanks for it, by the way—the money. It’s going to really help.”

Going to?” he said, with a puzzled look.

“Forget it. Another long story. But would you like to sit down a minute, talk about other stuff?”

We decided to sit on the porch.  To my relief, Bio was dressed in dirty overalls, not at all like he expected to attend a wedding. He offered me a bench then settled himself not far away on a cut tree stump, long legs angled outwards like a grasshopper’s, a patient expression on his face like he was intent on honoring anything I wanted.

I wasn’t just jumpy, but I noticed my hands were chilled and clammy. Obviously, it was my wedding day, but the reason I’d bothered with the lame mantra was in fear that I’d forget what I’d decided earlier that week, or that I’d freeze up and go numb when I said it. I’d decided to let go of the big picture, all the murkier questions that promised only hard-to-trust responses and more questions, questions that were maybe too big or bearable. I’d decided on just one question, which also put a lot more pressure on delivery.

I cleared my throat and adjusted myself to speak, placed my hand on my satiny, corseted stomach. I was about to ask it, but a vehicle arriving through the woods made me stop.

Through some bushes, I could see a sliver of the muddy lot. The truck was Coach Granville’s, Sam’s last minute pick for a best man, who arrived a half hour early for everything. What surprised me though, was to hear the chatter of my bridesmaids—Tina, Cheyanne, Lisa—then to see their big perms bounce from the truck like cotton candy. Lisa hooted as she negotiated her way from the truck’s high running board. It was an odd combination: the Coach, my girls. Odd enough at least to distract me for a moment.

When I turned back to Bio, I just said it. “If I ‘broke you open,’ if you cared about me so much…” Lips-throat-heart. “How could you just disappear?”

Bio lowered his eyes to the rotting floorboards. He must have known the question was coming, but maybe not so suddenly. Finally, he looked up and set his wide eyes upon me. When he saw how closely I was studying his face, he wilted and looked down again.

For all I know, only fifteen or thirty seconds elapsed, but they felt like five minutes. Lips-throat-heart—but this time it was to stop me from saying something, to wait for an answer.

And then there came a sort of breathless dip, when I realized he wasn’t going to say anything at all, nothing adequate at least. And sure enough, when he finally spoke, what he said didn’t even matter. What mattered was that as his lips moved his eyes never settled on me but darted around everywhere except me.

I felt myself relax—far more relaxed than most brides, I remember thinking—and I leaned back, and for the first time since I’d arrived took in what I could see, beyond the muddy lot, beyond the muddy rabbit field hopping with rabbits, beyond the small valley… the hill with the lone willow.

But another car had arrived, a strange, Edsel-type one with the outline of a face with top hat and mole—Old Abe’s Ceremonials—on its door. Next to it, for the first time I noticed the old John Deere that had been sitting there all along, coated with fresh grass cuttings.

“You mowed,” I said to Bio.

Bio nodded, and while my wedding troupe gathered at the rim of the muddy lot, we sat there, he still unable to look at me. A prolonged sensation came over me then: how I could actually be too meaningful, too special to look at. I tried to think of a super-heroine name for that, but didn’t come up with anything exactly right yet.

Coach Granville, the girls wavering in their five-inch pumps, and Abe Lincoln descended into the valley, linked like a comical line of old world explorers. Sam stood in the middle of the lot, brushing off his sleeves, waiting for me.

“I’ve got to go, Dad.”

 

___

Michael Welch is a recent graduate of the Pacific University Writing Program. His recent publications include “New Room” in Soundings, “Papatoto” in Midwifery Today, and “Letters from the Front” in The Mankind Project Reader, an essay about his work in Folsom Prison; his story “Calcium” and short “The Rental” were finalists in New Millennium writing contests this past year. “Calcium” is upcoming in Stealing Time. He grew up in the Bronx and now lives with his family in Eugene, OR.


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