Tom walked slowly with his cane behind the two women toward the frame house on the hill. Liz glanced back occasionally to smile encouragement. Margaret ignored him, back rigid.
The lane was overgrown with grass, mullein and milkweed. The morning dew had not completely burned off in the hollow and already his shoes were soaked. Mist lingered over the pond behind the dying orchard, and with it came the scent of rotting harvest apples.
And he was eight again, shivering in the dawn chill. Wet socks in cracked leather boots, chasing the one damn cow that always ignored the milk bell. And no matter how fast he ran, sometimes a bit of a sharp word from his father waiting in the barn.
Momma had noticed his tears once, “Tommy, your Daddy was a foster boy. Had a real hard time. But he cares a lot more than he’ll ever show.” Yeah, well, comes a time when you say screw that. Work all day every weekend and all summer when school’s out. Hardly ever a well done or a thanks. Damn seldom...
The barn roof had collapsed into the stone foundation. Faded chips of whitewash clung to a few inside walls where the cow stalls had been. But up on the hill, the grey weathered house seemed mostly one piece. Closer on, Tom saw the porch floor was half missing and its roof sagged to the east where a post had rotted through.
Liz hesitated and waited. “Tommie, want to go in? I think it’s safe if we’re careful.” Ahead, Margaret shuffled on toward the garden behind the house.
“Not right now, Liz. But let’s sit here on the porch a bit – this damned hip. Your brother’s a city boy. Not used to climbing hills these days”.
* * *
Liz sat beside him, in profile so much like Momma, especially as in that wedding picture that always hung above the fireplace. Why in the heck had Momma picked Pop as her guy, pretty as she was? And him a man who too often treated smiling as work. Maybe the uniform? He was a big handsome guy, no question. Also once heard a neighbor say one tough bastard in his younger days...
Wonder if he ever told Momma he cared? God, he must have...she stayed. Because more than one would have taken her out of here. Back then, definitely what folks would have called a handsome woman. Recall a boy at school winking and asking how come those hog buyers seem to drop by your place a bit often.
I was real little then so asked Momma about it. She just stammered a bit but then real quick, ‘Don’t ever ask your Paw’. Like I ever would. He never did talk much and not ever about things like that. Though maybe back then he was able to give a little and use kinder words, maybe even loving words.
Like I could with Jenny at the start, especially those first ten years up in Canada sitting out the damn war. But when the work and the times turned sour, Jenny had less patience with me. Or more sense. Or something.
* * *
The sun was beginning to stir the breeze, bringing whiffs of ragweed with the second cut hay. Fields were now rented, he understood. Liz reached for his hand, a bit hesitant. And at her touch, another memory flooded back. Of a Saturday morning, bake day. He and Lizzie barred from the kitchen, playing on the porch.
Margaret helping Momma, then bringing hot buttered biscuits. Tossing him the smaller one, teasing him, mussing his hair. Then like magic, slipping another out of her sleeve.
“Tom”, Margaret’s voice broke through. It was the first time she’d spoken to him directly since the airport the day before.
Liz helped him to his feet and he began to pick his way through the rutted garden with his cane. To the lilac hedge and a shaded spot where a weather-beaten bench sat between clumps of dried lavender and faded asters both wilting in the bone dry soil.
Margaret was already there. He waited, awkwardly, looking down, realizing suddenly just how frail and faded she’d become. “So, little brother, want to know what all's happened since you left back in sixty-seven?” Her face was grim, “Then sit. And listen good”.
She turned to face him. “This here bench, Tom, this is exact where Momma sat. And the lane we just walked up, that's exact what Momma watched. Every damn night since Poppa died, weather allowed, for more years than I’d like to count. Said if she prayed hard enough, you’d walk up it again some day."
Liz’s hand rested on his shoulder for a moment, then was gone. Margaret watched her move to the fence and look away.
"God finally answered Momma's prayers, didn't he, Tom. But a little late. Mostly a little late with his answers, God is. Like not showing us something was serious wrong with Momma until it was too late to do a damn thing but watch her die. Or like us not finding where you were at until she was already in the ground.”
“Maggie, I had no…….”
“No, you bastard, you had no idea. You were so damn full of yourself. Running off and never one word after. Never a word. And did the thought ‘only son’ ever cross your mind? Poppa – thinking for sure when the pardon came down, his boy would finally come home. Or at least let us know he was still alive.
But I think he’d quit hoping at the end. Gave up. But Momma never did.”
* * *
Tom looked away, hesitated.
Then, “Maggie, I have no real excuse though I'll try to explain a bit. But don’t feed me any crap about the old man. Don’t try to tell me he gave a rat’s ass. Day I left, you were there. He saw me go and it was no damned surprise. But he never looked up from what he was doing. And not a word from him. Not a damn word.”
She grimaced as she shifted position. Her face had softened, resigned. Like when she’d walked with him that day down to the highway, saying she’d be leaving for the city too as soon as Liz was a bit older. “Always did put a lot of stock in words, didn’t you, Tom? Is that how you made your living up there in Canada? No?
"Well, I’m not much good with words. Never was as smart as you either, I suppose. But I still know what matters. And I still see clear that day too”. She sat silent for a minute.
"That night, I walked out to the barn after supper. Seeing you were gone, to help Poppa with the milking. Now you must remember how a cow sounds when she’s bloated? Sure you do, you had to help often enough.
Well, when I went in, there was that very same sound. Like the air’s just been taken out of you and you’re gasping for it. And there was Poppa hanging over a stall, shoulders shaking. I was like froze. Never seen a person do that before and never have since.
He finally spied me in the shadows. Mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out but he didn’t seem ashamed and that surprised me. Even more when he came over and sort of leaned on me, just for a wee bit. And you know, thinking on it right now with you here, maybe that’s the day my life took a different road. Maybe I figured he didn’t need to lose another quite so soon."
She paused, then "Time seemed to just slip by. Lucy went off to town. Not long after, it was Poppa with his leukemia so again I stayed. He hung on for close on twelve years, just able to do enough with our help to pay the bills...we just couldn't bring ourselves to take him off the land he loved. Then it was only Momma and me… .”
Liz was at the fence, turned away. A crow rasped discontent in the stubble behind them. The breeze had died and the Kentucky heat closed over them.
"But you’re right, Tom. Absolute right. Not a word. Not a damn word.”
She struggled to her feet, brushed away his proffered hand, and shuffled over to Liz at the fence. She turned and her eyes found his.
“When did we die for you, Tom? How long did it take?”
* * *