Excerpted from Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu.
I didn’t believe him for the longest time. Three years since Mama’s passing, and he continued to see her. Day before the sale, I heard him scramble into his pants and flannel, laces crisscrossing, light still murky uncertain. I knew he’d caught sight of something from his bedroom window. I pulled on socks and the back door swung wide. I followed him, imagined Mama’s words in my ears, Look after your father, as if she’d known, as if somehow she’d known.
Outside Daddy’s boots broke dirt clots, the little land we had left went on unplowed, just stubs of corn, old mud ruts now dry. He didn’t want me to follow him. Tess! he called, my mother’s name. How had he gotten so far? When I caught up to him his face shined with sweat. I tugged his elbow. Let’s go home, I told him, shivering with chill despite the wet heat. He took off. I heard emptiness rattle inside his shirt. He refused to eat; he said nothing tasted right. I looked up in the direction he ran, saw a woman in a gray gown and overcoat. She plodded firm with her back to us. Tess, he said to her. Please.
I didn’t want what he claimed to be true. I had stood beneath the old oak where they set the stone with two engraved names. I thought I remembered crying.
I reached him again. He put a hand up to silence me. The sky peached, and the moon receded. We followed her across the colorless grass and into the trees. Briars caught on the length of her gown. Glare on the river, everything lifting with fire, a new day. We came up on her. He reached a hand out to her shoulder to turn her, and she looked at us—a stranger, eyes wild and unfocused. She shoved Daddy. No weight to hold him steady—and he flew, backside hitting a maple we sometimes tapped. The woman kept on, and Daddy looked dazed, egg-like lump rising on the back of his head—Tess? His face sheened white.
She’s dead, I reminded him.
Luann, your mama’s never gonna forgive me, he said, rubbing the bruise. Losing her people’s land like this. We watched the woman descend into the river furrow, move along the dry bank. He told me that was no woman but a ghost, said ghosts were everywhere and they were nothing to fear. Your mama’s the one I’m waiting for. Bound to come back to give me a piece of her mind. His shirt had opened wide at the neck, and I could see the rippled skin from his burns. It made me feel uneven. In response I petted my own neck, traced its smooth plane.
I tried to tell him there’s no such thing as ghosts, but he gave me a hollow look like I had no real thoughts in my head. I was scared and once we arrived home I dove onto my bed, covered my head. Truth be told, if she were upset with anyone it would be me. After a bit I tried to concentrate on summer sounds: peepers and gassy toads. I listened for her footsteps. Stiffened in my bed. Counted my breaths. Mama? It could have been ten minutes or an hour that passed. When I lifted the blankets, I blinked into darkness.
Mrs. Sparkman arrives early with two women from church. They set up the tables. Talk about the new priest, the upcoming pancake breakfast, the heat. They set out buckets of ice and jugs of sun tea. I bring stuff from inside the house and set it on the tables. Old clothes, the little jewelry she had. Dishes and kitchen things. A couple stained dolls. Daddy’s in the barn with the men. As we work, the women ask me questions out the sides of their mouths. I am eight now. Do I like to swim? You must get lonely out here, no playmates your own age. They click their tongues. Wear looks of pity. I twirl with my arms up, white dress from Grandma swirling, curls scraping my shoulders; I stop when I start to get dizzy. They applaud. Say I am cute.
Come here, sweetie, one of them says. My left hand chews up my dress fabric. Come on now, she says, I won’t bite. I obey, and she touches my hair. It feels like a sponge! Darleen, feel this. Another one comes by. Fingers my head. When they lift their hands, I slink away. Pretend I’m checking out the cookies set out on paper plates.
Gonna be trouble later. Nobody knows her people.
Hush. Girl’s right there.
Mark my words. Adoption’s not right.
More people arrive. Plastic bags hold purchases. The cash box fills. Everyone buys bits of us until only remnants are left—mismatched socks, an egg timer that doesn’t work. I hold Daddy’s hand when the auctioneer clears his throat and waves a hand in attention. The driest year Daddy can remember. July isn’t even over and the trees have already dropped their leaves. Tassels on the corn are dry frittered things. Daddy had to give up the cows. There was nothing for pasture and nothing to pay for feed. The river smells of mud, decaying fish.
Daddy’s not the only guy Papermill laid off; he’s just the unluckiest, he says. The buckets of ice have turned to water by the time they are done. Some shake Daddy’s hand or squeeze his shoulder. Take care now, they say. We sit on the steps and watch the train of cars leave land that has been in my mother’s family for three generations—land the bank has sold. Dust whorls. We sweat. Vultures spoon the sky.
Two days he stays in bed sweating, ripe with fever. I sit beside him in a chair. Hold cool cloths to his forehead. Read aloud from books I own. Sadness seeps out of him. When he sleeps, he whimpers about the land or Mama, eyes half-lidded and dancing. Daddy, wake up. It’s a dream. You are dreaming. I clap my hands around his. They are callused and feathered with hairs. He blinks awake, stares. I love you, Daddy, I tell him. I count to one hundred and back down. The fan whirs in its place on the dresser top, the faintest air moving.
I do what I imagine Mama doing. I wipe the counters with a mixture of vinegar and water and use an old fly swatter to beat dust from the curtains. I hang laundry on the line out back. Daddy is not whole and needs nutrition so I make a bowl of creamed wheat, stirring in the last bit of brown sugar. I sit at his bedside and try to rouse him. Time to eat, Daddy. Gotta keep up your strength. But he pays me no mind, and I know he is dreaming about her, that together he and Mama are making plans for more good times, like the ones he said they had before. I try to push the thought away but cannot forget that I am not of them. At what point will I be sold, given away?
Then it’s morning and I wake alone inside all that heat. The birds chirp, and the sheet is pushed back. My bedclothes are damp, and the bed is empty.
Daddy? I move through rooms vacant of furniture and rugs, and my feet make a dull echo. My heart bams away in all the silence. Outside crisp leaves sway.
I find him toeing the ledge of the barn’s second floor, that open space that leads to nothing—morsels of hay, mouse droppings. Daddy, stay there, I say. I’m coming up. I speed up the rungs of the ladder and stand behind him, smell his sourness.
I’m not right, he says.
It’s not you, it’s times, I say and inch closer.
I was the one who planted that baby inside her, he says. His hair stands wild. I feel how close he is to the edge.
She says she misses me, he says, and she never used to say things like that. He drops his chin and I grab his middle, yank him back until he collapses on top of me. The floor holds us. We both shake, and the dust in my nostrils burns.
The sun is all bared, and he sobs up against me, his back to my front. Air sputters out of him in choked bits. I hold him like this for some time, tight as I am able. I wish Mama would appear.
They are building houses west of town on land that once belonged to the Doreghtys and Lamberts. RIVER’S CROSSING is what the sign says. We sit in the shadow of a hickory and eat apples dipped in peanut butter—food the church people leave on the step. You gotta eat something, I tell him, just like I imagine Mama saying.
I know, he says, palming an apple.
We sit so long waiting for Mama that my backside begins to tingle. She’s different now, he says. Ingleside is different too I think, only I don’t say it. The deer are thin and sickly looking. Smallmouth bass used to leap into a net extended from Red Arrow Bridge, but now they are pale scrawny things that barely ribbon the water. Daddy refuses to eat them. The bridge is near Papermill, and Daddy won’t go near that side of town.
The bulldozers gnash the ground and drop black soil in mounds. The earth smells clean and looks rich, but the top layer blows away. Dust coats our eyes, lines the insides of our fingers and toes. The houses they are building have long peaked roofs and attached garages. Doors tall enough for giants. Tiny octagonal signs advertise security systems. The workmen hammer and drill, their backs bare and tanned.
We wait until the last crew drives off, and then I follow Daddy down to where the blacktop ends and the FOR SALE signs disappear. We head in a ways past drought-stricken trees to the crumbling brick of a hearth. Daddy walks around as if he’s trying to decide something. He stops and turns to me, speaks. They think you would be better off elsewhere, Luann. Living with someone else….His voice trails off. He won’t look at me. He opens and closes his hands. Palms the skin below his shirt that still doesn’t look right—never will be right. It’s bumpy and disjointed from when he was burned as a boy.
I squint up at him. Do you think they’re right? I ask.
When he keeps to his silence, I go and grab him by the pant loops. I want to stay with you, I say and watch the crazy panning of his eyes. He’s here but not here. He lifts his arms a tad and does a half-spin, gestures, and I turn with him.
He talks. This used to be the kitchen, he says. Right here. My mother and father would sit here, and the twins sat on either side of my mother. My brother Robert would be here. He strokes his neck again, the warpled skin, and I know he smells the smoke, feels everything crashing and ripping down around him. He runs a hand on the brick. Rubs it back and forth like the tracings we’ve made at school, only he’s pressing down with his wrist, and the skin’s getting all scraped up and dotted with red.
As he talks pictures begin to appear in my mind, and I wonder if this is what it’s like to see things, to be ghost haunted just like him. He points to the brush, to nothingness. I try to force the image of his dead family. I want to be more like him except in this way.
The first time Daddy saw a ghost he was just a boy out hunting pheasant with his younger brother and father. His brother Robert was a careful boy, a boy who wanted to please; he saw a flock of birds and aimed, but the birds scattered and he fired, hitting Daddy. Hot heat poured from Daddy’s arm, and he fell over at the sight of his blood spilling out onto the grass. Robert was unaware of his misplaced shot and my daddy was too frightened yet to scream. There was a little flap of skin on his arm, white flash of bone beneath. And then a man slipped out from the trees, a tall man with skin as brown as deer hide. He snuck out, seemed to appear from the tall grass. The man passed a hand over Daddy’s arm, and the blood dried up, went away altogether. By the time his brother found him splayed on the ground, the man had evaporated into the trees.
Daddy told his father he thought he saw Jesus. Son, he said, you must pray that happens in your lifetime.
Once the bank took down the sign from out front, the papers for the new owners filed, Mama came more frequently. I heard Daddy at the kitchen table with his checkbook and the security box late into the night, and then the chair would push back suddenly, and he’d up and leave. I learned to sleep lightly, to keep my sneakers tied. I never knew how long it would take or where he would go. Sometimes he wanted to be left alone—turned the handle as he closed the door soft and careful, and then I’d hear his boots thwapping the ground, and he’d be off.
I followed him across a rise into trees, then over a low wooden bridge, the river still beneath us. Tess! he cried, voice mournful. I did not see anything but his slight shape, the smell of the river’s decay heavy and rich. He pointed out her form in the movement of some shrubs. I stared long and hard and still she did not appear. But I’d watch with him, and the longer we sat, the more ghosts he saw: black people ragged and knobby kneed, faces clenched as they moved north. One time I stood there beside my father as he said a whole troop of them trudged in tattered clothes, faces worn. There were twenty, thirty of them. A baby cried, and a woman lifted the child to her breast. We stood there, and that time I did feel cool air moving. I had always known the route to the Underground Railroad cut right through these parts and Mama’s people offered food, shelter. But I didn’t see a thing.
The woman with the child held her out to Daddy, and he turned away, grabbed my shoulder and told me to start walking fast. It’s one thing to see them, he said. Another thing altogether when they start seeing you.
And then nothing is as it seems. I find the skull of a squirrel, poke it with a stick, but then I see it whole, running along the underbrush, up a tree.
What is real, what is imagined?
Daddy tells me how the land was different before they adopted me, how he and Mama used to have a herd of more than seventy beef cattle. They used to make enough to attend the movies on Saturday nights, a nice ham and turkey at Christmastime.
We sit on the porch and watch the sun beat scabbed grasses that by now should have been corn, throwing shadows on our legs. He tells a story for every plot—points out where he first glimpsed my mother from behind a milking pail, the hill where he shot a buck; over there is where he says I took my first steps. You need to remember this, he says. I won’t always be here.
Where are you going? I ask. He does not answer.
Our last night, and the house is empty. I make Daddy drive me to Welmann’s where I use all our coupons on butter and sour cream, potatoes, eggs, ground beef. I make meatloaf and mashed potatoes pooling with gravy, buttered carrots in a glossy sheen. Now you eat, I say, a hand on my hip. My best Mama pose. But he won’t eat. His eyes have already started to pop from his face, excavate the bones on his cheeks. This worries me.
I finish my glass of milk, wipe my mouth and stand. His eyes seem to brighten. Yes, yes, he says, nodding. Yes, she is.
Who you speaking to? I ask.
He chuckles, stubble on his beard flecked with white. It’s your mama.
I don’t see her.
She’s right over there.
I walk in the direction he points, push my face in the corner of the room. Mama! It’s Luann. You talk to me right now, and I stomp.
Don’t take that tone with her, he says. She’s still your mama.
Show yourself! I demand. I begin to think maybe Daddy really is crazy because there’s no one here but us.
Later we unroll blankets on the living room floor but it is too hot to even blink. Moths flick against the light outside the barn, and I wonder about the land. We aren’t the only ones bought out by developers. Somehow I doze. Wake to buzzing, the click of the latch. Daddy?
I hear him shuffling away in his boots and slide on my sneakers. He hasn’t gotten far. Once I fall into step behind him he begins to run, and I follow. Daddy! Wait! I own a four-leaf clover pressed between sheets of waxed paper, the Bible from Mama’s family. A lock of hair I cut from her when she was pregnant and napping and not yet dead. But I doubt any of this will work. Please stop!
He runs until he arrives downtown, a good two miles from our house. Both of us are sweaty and breathless when he slows in front of the ice cream parlor. He visors his hands around his eyes, presses his face into the glass. Sweat inks the back of his shirt and his armpits. She’s fixing something, he says. I look through the window and see the counter with its striped stools, booths set with napkin dispensers. But I don’t see anybody.
It’s hot fudge, he says. Yow-wee. Extra cherries, Tess! You know it.
Behind us the sign for Bremeyer’s department store glows red. Beside it are FOR SALE signs. The window of the realtor is papered with listings. We should go back, I say.
Don’t you want ice cream, Luann? He puts a hand around my shoulder as he says this, looks right into my face as he speaks. Your mama is right there, and she’s making us a treat. I look into the shop. I want to see something. Memories of my mother have evaporated into a kind of blurred uncertainty. Tess! He rattles the handle to the parlor. Let me in. His voice skims across empty storefronts, the two storey brick buildings. He grabs a cement ashtray parked next to a bench and heaves it up, veins in his neck popping.
Daddy, I say, don’t do something you’re going to regret. He elbows me away and in one movement swings the ashtray through the door; glass shatters and a bell goes off, surprising us both.
He charges into the parlor, heels crunching and skidding on glass. Tess? His arm is bloody. The alarm won’t quit.
Daddy, I say, let’s go. He stands behind the counter now palming the space. Lights flash red and blue, a siren. His blood pinks the smoothness.
She was right here. I saw her. He starts opening and closing the cabinets. Looking behind doors.
We’ve got to go. She’s not here. And while I know he hasn’t forgotten, know it pains him to hear it, I remind him she’s in the ground on the hill.
The sheriff comes in then, hand on his holster. Hands up! he yells before seeing my daddy. Teensy? he says, his boots grind glass. What’s all this about? and I feel the familiar pride as he steps forward, takes Daddy’s hand. Sometimes they hunt together. Years ago Daddy helped deliver a calf for the sheriff’s son and his wife.
Daddy shakes his head, offers a half-shrug. The sheriff presses paper napkins to the wound. It’s hard times, is what Daddy says.
That it is, says the sheriff. Don’t need to take it out on private property, you hear? He claps both hands on Daddy’s shoulders and shakes them. You hear me? Gonna have to pay for this, he says. Daddy promises he will. The sheriff halts the alarm then directs us to leave. He offers us a ride in his car. I let myself in the backseat. Daddy’s in front.
People are starting to talk, Teensy, he says, turning on the air conditioning. The first icy blast transforms my skin to plastic.
So let them talk.
I mean really talk. You’ve got to get hold of yourself or someone’s gonna do it for you. You got a daughter. He looks at me in the rearview mirror, forces a dopey smile. Think of Luann.
You think I don’t know that. You think she’s not on my mind constant? I’m so tired of everyone telling me what’s right, what I can and cannot do. You people are killing me. His voice escalates. Let me out, he says, working the door.
What are you doing?
Daddy punches the door open and rolls out onto the grass. The car jerks to a stop and the sheriff swings his door ajar. I could take you in, Teensy. You know that? Charge you on multiple counts.
Daddy ignores him, starts walking. The sheriff follows, the headlights catching shots of his back or legs as Daddy walks and we follow him home.
The next day is like any other. We roll up the blankets and chuck them in the back of the truck. I don’t answer him when he asks me if I’m ready, then turns the truck in the direction of Mrs. Sparkman’s house. I don’t believe him when he says Grandma can’t care for me. Be honest, I think. She doesn’t like me. Not of her kind.
He promises that he’ll be back in a week. Tells me to mind my manners. He’s going to Savoy for a few days to see about a job. He sets my bag just inside the door where Mrs. Sparkman tells him to leave it. Her house is warmer than outside and smells of stewed tomatoes. He gives me a hard hug. You be good now, he says.
As his truck pulls away, Mrs. Sparkman waves a handkerchief from the porch. Her bosom swells against the cabbage roses on her housedress. I refuse to look at him. I ground my heels in the dirt, but I can’t do it. I don’t want to stay here. I am not going to be left behind.
Mrs. Sparkman tells me to come back. I pump my arms until I’m running beside the truck. Daddy slouches over the wheel. He has the window down, the knob of an elbow out. I’m almost even with him when he gives it gas and shoots forward—and I choke on all that dust, bend over and spit, and when I stand up again, I see her a ways off in the crest of a hill—Mama’s unmistakable step. Her nightdress is faded, but there is a rise in the belly, that almost-baby. I see her now and wave my arms—she’s right here! Daddy, wait!
I believe you, I say, she’s here! His truck keeps on, and dust eddies in its wake. Mom! I call, a name I rarely say. When she doesn’t look up, I take off in her direction. She has shown herself to us both. But I will be the one to make her remain.
Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days (Sept., 2017, University of Nebraska Press) and the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies from Shenandoah and The Massachusetts Review to storySouth, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner. She has been a finalist for awards from Glimmer Train on multiple occasions, twice nominated for Pushcart Awards, and was the winner of the Sam Adams/Zoetrope: All Story Short Fiction Contest. She is founder and executive director of the Lafayette Writers Studio, in Lafayette, IN, where she also teaches classes on the art and craft of writing. To learn more visit her website.