I’m no Arkansas native. Still, I’ve seen my share of strange skies. After Anne and I were married, we left Texas so that I could attend forestry school in Oregon. From the balcony of our apartment just south of Eugene, we’d watch the black Pacific clouds roll into the Willamette valley and even the birds would go quiet. It was a West Coast thing, like an earthquake—eerie, breathtaking, sometimes terrifying, but usually short-lived—over before the real panic had time to set in. When I was a kid in the Texas panhandle, clouds were recreation. God’s truth, early one September the entire third grade skipped the afternoon half of school to follow a low nimbus across the scrub-grass field toward the creek bed. It was recess. Someone started walking and we all followed, cooling ourselves under the only outdoor shade we’d seen in months.
That was Texas. This is Arkansas.
Here in this valley, clear through to March, when on nights like tonight I sometimes sit on the porch in my parka, sipping whiskey and shivering and trying to find just the right prayer for the son I lost eleven years back, or the courage to call the one who’s alive but living hundreds of miles away, often even the clouds turn lethargic, and they sit, and they stay.
They stay in such a way that tonight, if you sat in your truck at the intersection of the mill road and Highway 10, where the company land ends and the Ozark National Forest stands like a frozen wall to the north, your wipers would groan as they raked sleet from the glass. The clouds would hunker down, blocking out the moon, but even with one headlight out you’d be sure to notice that they haven’t replaced the sign on the corner yet—it still reads 329 DAYS WITHOUT AN LTA. Lost time accident, that’s what they call it when someone saws through an arm or shears a hand in half with the planer. All it takes is a second of distraction, one turn of the head. One bad decision. When you spend a quarter of your life in the mill, you have to remember every second what the motors and blades are capable of. You don’t wear loose-fitting clothes and you don’t take a drink at lunch. You don’t work at a station before you’ve been trained and certified. When you’re on the line, you don’t think about your wife’s nice plump ass and you don’t worry about little Johnny’s grades. You concentrate. I did it for ten years before I made plant manager, still do it when I’m out in the yard. There’s rules and, as they say, you follow them so you can clock out and make your way home to play This Little Piggy with your babies without coming up short any piggies.
Something else you don’t do—you don’t clear sap buildup from between a pulley and belt when the conveyor is running. I’ve seen it tried and there’s only one possible outcome: the belt doesn’t slip and the pulley won’t stop and the pillow-block bearings won’t let loose of the shaft. It’s one shoulder socket versus a forty-horse motor and the arm is coming off. Period. Every time. No question and no excuse.
I didn’t know this Lonnie Neiman well, but I know what he didn’t know. There’s only one way to clean the debarker. That thing’s a bad SOB, a real widowmaker, and you’ve got to respect it. You disconnect the power line. You call the electrician and have him cut the juice completely. It’s something you’d expect everyone would know, but you’ve got to watch the new guys. They’ll sweat their rears off, they’ll yessir and nosir you to death, but when it comes down to it, they’re just too damn eager, too revved up to slow down and think. The boys say Lonnie was like that, a whole mound of red ants in his pants. It’s hard to believe, such a lack of common sense, such outright stupidity, but you can’t tell his mother that. You can’t say, I’m sorry something awful, ma’am, but the boy was just too dumb to stay alive. You can’t even say for certain what the hell he was doing in there, except you have to figure that, with a kid like Lonnie, less than a year out of Blue Mountain High and just three weeks on the job, he was probably trying to go the proverbial extra mile, trying to make an impression. Well, if you ask my line foreman, Big Red, the kid did just that.
So did the debarker.
Imagine a porcupine turned inside out, a big mother with three-foot-long steel quills. That’s what a debarking drum is like. An enormous pipe, fifteen feet in diameter and lined inside with hundreds of these quills. Load it with a dozen or so twenty-foot-tall, forty-year-old Arkansas pine trunks, turn that sucker on, get it rolling good, and thirty seconds later you’ve got naked trees, fresh and clean as an Eden stream. Step back, blow the bark and sap out the discharge vents, smell that rich, sappy-sweet smell, and keep on keepin’ on. Now, load that killer with one six-foot-tall, eighteen-year-old kid. Let’s say he’s a real green-ass, maybe he’s trying to suck up to the foreman, do some extra housekeeping before the shift ends—who knows? All the same, he’s in there when Big Red throws the switch to cycle the motor.
Red’s been a crew chief for seven years, and if Red says there wasn’t any screaming I’ve got to believe him. Just a bump, he said, a liquid whistling sound. Something that didn’t ring right in his ears—that debarker is Red’s baby and he would know. Then he opens the discharge vents and a few minutes later the boys find him puking his guts up in the washroom.
That was three days ago. Tonight it’s history, the sign by the highway just doesn’t tell the story yet. 329 DAYS, it reads, WITHOUT AN LTA, like maybe Rita in the front office couldn’t stand to pull the numbers off the board and hang a zero in their place.
Usually, when I leave the sawmill for the night, I roll the truck windows down and breathe in deep through my nose. I take some of it home that way, some of the smell, some of the life that even a felled tree keeps holed up inside. It means something to me, makes clear the persistence, or maybe resistance, of the organic. Something dies—even a tree—it rarely goes willingly. It wants you to smell what it was in life, or what it could have been if you’d had the sense to let it go on living. It wants you to remember. Trees, like angry husbands and wives, always want the last word.
When I was ten, my father held me in front of him at Uncle Weldon’s processing house in Odessa. After Dad had me choose the calf, my cousin Frank loaded a bullet into a special sledgehammer, and when he swung there was a dead, dull sound—no resonance—like maybe he’d dropped a wrecking ball into quicksand. Later, with the calf hanging from a hook inside, my uncle pulled a knife up through the smooth hide of the animal’s underside and stepped back as the bulge of intestines slumped forward with a sucking sound and plopped onto the slick cement floor. What I remember most was Dad’s breathing, the way his chapped lips clamped shut below his wiry mustache, the way his nostrils flared as he inhaled, sucking the smell of the animal into his lungs, keeping it alive a while longer inside him.
Usually, for me, it’s the same with trees, but lately it doesn’t matter. The rain is freezing in midair and the stripped logs in the mill yard are sealed with skins of ice. It’s winter in Logan County, Arkansas, and you can’t smell a damn thing.
This evening, before Red and I took care of the smell in the debarking drum, on my way to Lonnie’s wake the clouds were gray slate, perfectly smooth, spitting pebbles of sleet down on the countryside. The trees beside the road stood coated with ice, polished skeletons with bark-brown marrow. My driver’s side headlight has been out for a week, and the dark and the ice on the road and the thought of coming face-to-face with Lonnie’s mother were all mixed up like frozen slush in my gut.
Dangerous as it was, I stomped on the gas and rolled the windows down, and for the ten-mile stretch of highway I sped cold and half-blind and sliding through turns toward town. I told myself that I just wanted it done, that I’d make my appearance at Wickman’s Funeral Home and get it over with so I could head to my house and pour a whiskey and have a seat on the back porch. But what I really wanted, I suppose, was what I’ve wanted all winter—to be normal, a forty-seven-year-old lumber boss with a son gone off to college in Texas and an ex-wife who runs a nursery in Abilene. To forget about this poor kid who got himself killed in my debarking machine. I wanted the clouds to clear so I could sit in the sun on top of Magazine Mountain. I wanted my oldest boy back, wanted him alive. And I wanted like hell to smell the sticky insides of trees.
Now, if you were there in that truck near the edge of town, with sleet stinging your face and the highway ice slapping against the fender wells, and you decided you’d had enough of this maniac driver you’d somehow become and did what I was tempted each mile to do—that is, turn the truck around and let Lonnie’s family and friends tend to his wake—you’d drive five miles east, just shy of halfway back to the mill on Highway 10, and then, near the foot of the mountain, on the other side of the road near a stand of pin oaks, you’d slow down, hang a right just after the yellow mailbox. From that point on, you could put it in neutral and coast all the way to the barn, half a mile, the grade just steep enough to pull you home, gravel dredged from the Petit Jean River crunching under your tires the entire way, and when a few hours later, after Lonnie’s wake and after a trip to the mill with Red, I made it home to join you on the porch for a drink, I’d give you the nickel tour and tell you how the place used to be a farm. Chickens and pigs mostly, and corn.
I’d say that the old boy who sold it to me kept rambling on about the soil. “Uncommon dark for these parts,” he’d said, spitting tobacco through the gap of his teeth. So proud, he seemed, and sad to be selling, that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I hadn’t planned on farming. I’d just wanted a quiet place set back away from the highway, but my wife, Anne, she must have been listening to him, because before I got a fresh coat of paint on the place, she’d tilled up a patch of ground between the barn and the back porch.
The daughter of a toolpusher from Abilene, and the only sister of four older brothers, Anne was always at home in a world ruled by muscle and force. Lean and strong, she was a physical woman, forever in touch with her body, and luckily, I always thought, remarkably in touch with mine. She called making love “roughhousing,” and at times, especially early in our marriage, that seemed like an understatement. When angered, she was more likely to elbow you in the chest or smack you atop the head than resort to the silent treatment. She was a woman who spanked her children as soundly and shamelessly as she hugged them, who swung a hoe hard and took pride in her work, all the while wearing a dress. I can’t do it justice, I’m sure, but watching her at work in that garden, or driving nails into the side of the barn so she could hang her tools there, her calves taut and shining in the evening’s last hint of sun—well, let’s just say it made me do math. In my head. How many steps between us? How long to close the gap? How many seconds to get her up the stairs and out of that dress? How long could I keep her there beneath me? How long could I keep her?
Just the thought of that garden, I admit, fills me with something crackling and sharp, an electric kind of longing. It was quite a sight, something to come home to, something alive and green and ever-changing, especially in springtime when the sun was still out. I’d roll up in my old truck, beat down and dusty from a day at the mill, and Anne would be squatting in her garden in one of those short, flowery dresses, her toes curled up in the earth, the roots of her long blonde hair darkened with sweat. She’d spend hours out there babying those plants. So many that I used to tease her, claiming she loved them as much as she loved the boys, and for years after she left I thought for sure it was true, but that was anger talking, the kind that’s sometimes long-lived and almost always laced with self-pity. The kind that finds a man sitting nights on his porch in the dead of winter, sipping whiskey, wondering why he’s alone, the only one still living his life, the last one left in Arkansas.
Some nights, if the whiskey can’t find its way into my glass, and I can keep myself off that back porch and out of sight of where Anne’s garden used to be, when I think about her I can admit to myself that she loved our boys as much as any mother, and that, sure, she loved her garden, and that it doesn’t make any sense to compare the two. Lose a plant and you learn to respect the elements, to prepare for them. There’s no one to blame but yourself. Lose a child and, for a while, the only thing that can keep you sane and above ground and alive enough to hate yourself is the burn-off of rage you ignite by laying blame somewhere, on something or someone else, so you can keep it from burrowing inside you and living where deep down you believe it belongs.
Plants and children.
I was acting the fool to ever compare them, or to think that Anne ever had, but what I do accept is that all her affections grew from the same source. It was the raising she loved, the cause and effect of nurture and growth. When our firstborn, Nate, started walking, she tacked a cloth tape to the inside wall of our closet and measured his progress against the pencil marks she made on the wall. I remember his laughter, so high and happy, at being tucked away in that closed quiet space with his mother, the woman who cooed and praised him for every half-inch.
I remember Anne’s routine before she was pregnant with our second boy, Matty. She’d groan when I got out of bed and dragged myself to the shower, but by the time I’d dressed she’d have Nate’s food warming in a saucepan and mine sizzling on the griddle. When I’d leave for work, she’d be weeding in the garden, telling little stories to Nate, who’d be sitting in a white diaper between two rows of carrots. When I got home at night, the place would hold signs that life had gone on inside—dishes from lunch stacked in the sink, wash going in the utility room—but she’d usually be back in the garden, sometimes weeding, mostly watering. Always talking. She spoke to them—her son, her plants—as if they were somehow interchangeable. “A little water for you,” she’d say, and then she’d turn the hose to Nate’s feet, and he’d laugh and flap his arms and wiggle his toes while Anne said, “and a sprinkle for you, big boy. Just look how big we’re all getting.”
Her plants and her son. They grew up together, heard the same encouraging words whispered, rooted in those same rows of soil. Then Anne started growing, and by the time Matty came into our world, the garden was four years in the making, the same age as Nate.
Anne had a knack for knowing things early. She could tell by nightfall whether the next day would bring rain—said she could hear it in the wind, that it sounded like a seashell tide—and her garden was rarely overwatered. In the spring, she never brushed the soil back from the tops of the carrots. She knew by the shape of the greens how long to wait. And two months before he was born, Anne knew something was wrong with Matty.
“It’s not right,” she said one night, climbing into bed. “It feels like everything’s all mixed up inside.”
She brushed her thumb over my lips and her face folded into furrows. With my finger, I traced the darkening line that ran from her distended belly button to her panty line. “We’ve seen the ultrasound,” I said. “Doctor says everything looks fine.”
“I know, Tom.” Her eyes were wide. She took hold of my ears and leaned in close. “But I feel it,” she whispered, “and it’s all wrong.”
Looking back, and knowing how this has all turned out—with her in Abilene and me still out here in the valley alone—it might sound naïve, but I was a man who trusted his wife. I believed in her body’s warnings the way I believe a green sky during tornado season, so when nine weeks later I was called from the waiting room and found Anne upright in bed, holding our baby to her breast, such a charge of relief rolled through me that I took hold of the bed railing to keep my balance. I must have been grinning to beat all, and Anne smiled too. A slight, exhausted smile. Her hair hung in wet, matted ropes at her neck and tiny beads of sweat clung to her forehead. She pulled back the blanket and there he was, our Matty, sleeping and sucking softly. Anne looked up at me, then her eyes dropped down to her child and she pressed her lips so tightly together that her chin began to quiver. Pulling the blanket back farther, she uncovered Matty’s twisted foot. It was tiny, pink, dimpled like a new potato, and I remember tilting my head like a puzzled dog, thinking it might all make sense if I could just get the right perspective, but it was no use. I leaned closer, praying I’d find toes, and I must have looked ridiculous, a grown man all twisted up around himself, so obviously keeping his distance from the freak object of his curiosity. A man frightened by his own son, afraid to hold the tiny foot in his palm and raise it to his cheek, or warm it with his breath.
Anne didn’t look up at me. She kept her eyes down and stroked Matty’s head with the backs of her fingers. I don’t know how long I stood there, but I remember wanting the comfort of Anne’s eyes on me, wanting her to know we’d be okay the way she knew about the weather, wanting her to know it so surely that I would too. But more than that, I wanted her to share the awkward silence somehow, even if her look was unknowing, or piercing, or fierce.
I must have sat there for an hour, maybe longer, a solid block of fear in my stomach. And when I left the hospital, carrying a nauseating uncertainty out to my truck with me, I didn’t know what to do next. Before that day and since, I’ve heard parents tell guilt-riddled stories about forgetting their children—maybe starting the car and backing onto High Street before realizing the baby’s still sitting in his stroller on the sidewalk, being an hour late to pick a child up after Little League, that sort of thing—and all I can say is that sometimes, no matter how long they’ve been toddling underfoot, you surface from somewhere in the undertow of your thoughts to the sudden and crashing realization that you’re a parent. That afternoon, I must have driven the back roads for half an hour, and only after gunning the engine on the downhill stretch of Highway 10 and circling around our land on the gravel farm road did I remember Nate. I veered off at the fork and headed toward our neighbor Mrs. Janson’s place, where I’d left him that morning.
I found Nate out back, perched on the iron seat of an antique tractor. His hands gripped the wheel and his head was thrown back, his lips sputtering with the sounds of imaginary harvest.
“You’ve got a brother,” I told him, wiping some of his engine slobber from the corner of his mouth. “A baby brother.”
His eyes focused in on me with a serious precision that looked artificial on the face of a child. “Okay, Daddy,” he said, raising his arms to be picked up. “Let’s go see.”
It’s unsettling sometimes, how the roles of father and son get jumbled, how much security a four-year-old can offer a man, but Nate’s raised arms and the matter-of-fact look on his face set me at ease, and I remember actually whistling while driving us back to town.
“Mommy,” Nate said when we came into the room. “Is that one ours?”
Anne nodded. “Come see,” she whispered, pulling back the blanket.
Matty was sleeping and dreaming and sucking at air. Nate pressed his palms to the new pink skin of his brother’s chest, and something about the solemn and gentle look on his face reminded me of a holy man, a preacher, and as Nate laid hands on Matty his lips moved with half-whispered thoughts that resembled prayer. He froze when he saw the foot, but one look at his mother and her smiling nod was all the reassurance he needed. He took Matty’s shriveled foot in his little brown hands and held on to it.
Anne raised her eyebrows and winked at me. She held out her hand, the corners of her lips curled into a sad smile, and when I went to her I realized that I’d come for them all. I couldn’t wait to carry them home, all three of them, to pile them into the truck and drive them out of town, back down the hill through the shadow of the mountain and into our valley.
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