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Vol. 4, No. 2

Haw River Cosmology
by Dale Ray Phillips

~

The only time that summer my father visited the cosmology shop, he stormed in waving preliminary copies of the divorce papers. I was sweeping up hair tufts and nail clippings from the morning's makeovers. He paced and raved for a while, claiming that the settlement was unreasonable. He screamed that my mother had to leave him with something. Two old-maid crones were his audience. He recounted to them the boy-meets-girl-and-falls-head-over-heels story of their marriage. His saga ended with him grabbing some ant poison from the counter and claiming my mother was killing everything their love had stood for.
    "Poisoning it!" he yelled. The two customers fled, one with curlers bouncing in her hair. Then my father seemed to understand he was acting crazy. When I left the shop to flee the argument, my father followed me like an embarrassed potion buyer. I dumped the debris into the trash barrel, crammed in some newspaper, and set it on fire. Then my father picked up a stick and poked, and whole constellations of sparks rose and scattered.

 

~

According to Eugena, the dog days of August were scrambling normal cosmology. She explained that our house fit inside a larger cathedral of shadowy patterns. Our broken home was somehow sheltered by this spacious and more patient zodiac, whose cornerstones were the planets and whose walls were their alignments. During the dog days, the dog star, Sirius, rose with the sun--a conjunction in heaven's floor joist which influenced animal and human behavior. Dogs were believed to be particularly susceptible to rabies during this period, and any unchained mutt which threatened to bite could be shot with impunity. Normally timid king and garden snakes turned feisty. They would chase children picking butter beans, and big brothers hacked them with hoes into small pieces. Squirrels abandoned pecan trees to scrap with house cats over a bowl of left-out water. Drapes were tied open at night and drawn shut during the day's heat. Hens became unpredictable in their laying and setting habits, and crayfish left cracked creekbeds in desperate migrations. Roosters forgot when to crow, and rabbits had warbles which made them unfit for the table. Uncle Weenie Collins, the local exhibitionist, stayed locked in his cellar for most of the month, guarded in shifts by embarrassed relatives.
    So given the season and the climate of his predicament, my father seemed nearly normal when he spent whole nights letting the poker game run itself while he cut the cow pasture by floodlight on his riding lawn mower, though in the drought such lawn care was not necessary. His midnight rides became the object of much speculation, and opinion at the cosmology shop varied. In the kinder versions, he had gone crazy over love. The two hard-of-hearing old crones who had witnessed his tirade swore my father said he was being poisoned. The oddest rumor was that lost Confederate gold was buried in the pasture, and my mother wanted it. My mother basked in her new roles.
    "It's your father who's crazy now," she told me. "Let's see how he wears that hat." Then she confessed she liked the idea of being the center ofa local scandal.
    "I'm a femme fatale now. People make appointments to snoop on me and to be here if your father comes back in and yells. Business has never been better."
    "Just think of what we're giving your daddy as something like the luck changer," Eugena said when I asked were we hurting him. I felt as guilty for my complicity in the dusted fruit as I did for withholding the nuts-and-bolts knowledge I'd acquired under the cosmology shop. "But remember, love does have its own regretful properties."

 

~

Weekends that pregnant summer my father and I speculated over what he called the real estate of our future. He'd point to the cow pasture as if it were the promised land, and say we could make or name it anything we wanted. If I mentioned the impending divorce, he'd make the joke about the fat lady in church not having sung yet. I didn't mention to my father that our lives seemed more like a tabloid than a hymn. It was as if we were engaged in an odd alchemy which gave real events a makeover. My father called his trailer his Casa Grande, his separation a little misunderstanding, and when he argued with my mother by phone and she hung up, it was a bad connection. He called his cow pasture a golfing emporium; I had helped him reinvent the name from Earl's Driving Range to lift his spirits.
    "Emporium sounds bigger and better," he said. "Nice work."
    The first few weekends I stayed with him, I believed in the Emporium. Nights after clearing brambles and shoveling cow manure into boxed areas which, if fertilized, might become putting greens, we turned on the floodlights he'd installed and surveyed the future from lawnchairs. Over there would sit a concession stand where we'd sell beer, for golfing was a thirsty enterprise. Fathers and sons could relax here and practice their swings until midnight. We would reinvest the profits and expand. Who knew--this place could be a country club. He reminded me that Pepsi had started at a soda fountain in New Bern, North Carolina. The famous recipe was the result of a slow day, when a thirsty pharmacist had few prescriptions to fill. I'd look out where the lights ended and the night sky began and believe in his conjurer's dreams.
    Gradually, the Emporium became a house of cards. The Saturday before the trial separation was to end--and papers would get signed or shredded--my father failed to pick me up. I bicycled to his trailer, where he was mowing burnt grass. A few oaks cast puddles of shade in which some cows crowded. My father drove around them in circles like a roughrider. He had spent the night stenciling big plywood signs denoting driving-range yardage, and they were scattered against the sides of the trailer haphazardly, like debris from a windblown disaster. The confused cows mooed in a sad reminder of the life together we had traded. For the first time, I noticed the floodlights were fastened to cedar posts lashed together. My father got off the lawn mower and began chattering about his grand opening next Saturday. He rubbed a three-day stubble.
    "This place is looking good, isn't it?" he asked. "Don't worry about the cows--they're a special attraction. We'll paint bull's-eyes on them, and if a customer hits one, he'll get a free bucket of balls."
    "Sounds good to me,"I lied.
    My father inspected the breakfast sack my mother had sent. He swallowed a small bite of an egg sandwich with difficulty.
    "There's coffee too." I handed him the unscrewed thermos. He sniffed deeply, gulped once, then poured out the rest.
    "This is the only thing that tastes right." He pulled a Pabst Blue Ribbon from the cooler.
    "You been sleeping much?" I asked.
    "Too hot to sleep." He drank deeply from the beer, his head tilted back so far that his shirt rose to expose his navel and his lost weight. I found myself pitying my father, as if I had suddenly seen him through my mother's eyes. My father seemed to understand what I was thinking, and he shrugged. "You'll probably hear about this sooner or later. I went over to Shitwell's last night and played a little poker. It seems we own a realty company that specializes in graveyard plots. And whatever you hear, I didn't cheat, and the gun I carried was an old Civil War relic I thought I could hock if my luck went south. By the way, what do you know about perpetual care?"
    Accounts of what transpired would get reshuffled into the stuff of stories told in beauty shops or commented upon over supper tables. One version had my father pistol-whipping Elver Talmadge within an inch of his life. In this account, the M.D. my father carried along as money holder and confidant had to pull my father off and resuscitate Elver. The oddest version had my father visiting Eugena before the game. He threatened to kill her if she didn't call upon the devil and fix the game. This was Haw River, where myth commingled with whispered plots. How had our lives gotten stitched into such a patchwork cosmology?
    My father had become suddenly dangerous, and this pleased my mother. She made me burn the inedible gifts in the trash barrel behind the cosmology shop. Evidences must be burned,I wrote in my ledger.
    All through the next week, I had to coax my mother to open the shop and keep her appointments. A vandal had broken in and smashed some bottles. There was no real damage; it was more like the work of an angry child.
    "Do you think he'll hurt us if I sign those divorce papers?" We were cleaning the mess. My mother sat down heavily in the barber chair and visibly worried. "All this is upsetting the baby--she's kicking." Eugena had predicted a girl. My mother propped her feet on the footrest and asked would I rub them, because the pregnancy made them swell and throb. She said my father had massaged them when she was carrying me. She closed her eyes and remembered.
    "Did he really pull out a gun and pistol-whip that scoundrel?" She had gone to that place where drama governed.
    "He brandished that pistol. He couldn't help himself. He said to me that things had gotten out of control."
    "God, don't I know that feeling," said my mother.

 

~

Childhood is a spell, and spells are meant to be broken. On the Saturday the separation period was over, my father called to admit he was ready for a settlement and to insist my mother and I both visit Casa Grande with the final papers. He said that we'd have a little Last Supper.
    "He is going to drug us," my mother said theatrically to Eugena. "Then he'll cut us up into itty-bitty pieces and bury us in that cow pasture."
    Eugena was flipping tarot cards intently while I used a broom to harvest spiders' webs--in exchange for allowance--from forgotten corners of my mother's kitchen. Eugena paid more for webs gleaned from the beauty shop, because they were woven in a room storied with secrets.
    "What do the cards say?" my mother asked.
    "Wear your shopping clothes," Eugena said.
    "What does that mean?"
    "You're in a buyer's market."
    The latest local intelligence reports informed us that my father had suddenly quit his midnight mowing, and he now spent his off-nights drinking beer and watching TV like a normal person. Wives of his poker pals reported he had begun shaving again. They said the oddest thing he did was whack a few golf balls out into the pasture under the floodlights afterthe game was over.
    "What if he clubs us to death?" my mother asked as she and I drove over. Then she switched to her beautician's frequency. "Do I look all right?" She wore my father's anniversary gift of pearls, and she carried the divorce papers inside her Italian leather pocketbook. When I rummaged through her purse for some Dentine--she wanted her breath to smell sweet--I found a vial.
    "What's this?" I asked.
    "A placebo." She had never used a word before that I didn't understand. "That means it's what your father thinks it is." She patted her hair. "Do I look all right?"
    "You look fine. Turn here."
    My father greeted us warmly that evening, as if we were honored guests and not members of a family in the middle of a disaster. The driving range was coming along, he told my mother, things would get better. Inside the trailer, we nibbled on a cheese tray my father had prepared. He had even bought caviar--black lumpfish--and we ate it with saltine crackers. The sagging sofa where we sat bumping knees had a makeshift coverlet stitched of high-grade swatches of corduroy. I didn't know my father could sew.
    When my mother used the excuse of going to the bathroom so she could peek in his bedroom and inspect his life without her, my father shrugged and slapped his pockets for cigarettes, but he had none. Out of habit, he went into her purse to find one. He pulled out the papers and a vial. It was bottled in a used container with a skull-and-crossbones warning label. "No wonder I've not been hungry and I'm losing weight." He placed the divorce papers and the vial on the coffee table.
    "Your bedroom's a mess," my mother said when she came back into the room.
    "I'll need a big drink to sign these. Please mix us a bourbon."
    "I shouldn't." My mother patted her stomach. "But a small one for me wouldn't hurt." Ice cracked after she went into the kitchen. Dishes rattled, and she returned with the drinks on a dinner plate as she could find no serving tray.
    "What's this?" My father held up the vial.
    "It's nothing. It's something Eugena gave me to calm your nerves."
    "I knew you wanted me out of your life, and I knew Shitwell was a part of this, but I never thought you'd poison me."
    "You're talking nonsense like those old hags in my shop." She poured a portion of the contents into her drink, then the rest into my father's. She took a big swallow, and smiled. "Would I hurt our baby?" she asked.
    "This is Shitwell's doings." My father was so angry he poked the softness where my mother's sternum gave way to the new life growing inside her. "What's all this about?" He threw down the divorce papers he was rattling and yanked the handiest thing--a deer head hunting trophy--from the wall. He tested its heft and swing. Those antlers could have done real damage; my father was that close to violence. My mother usually slapped faces and hurled pictures. "All this over a sorry-assed bunch of cows and a pasture. He just wanted this property."
    "I just wanted to make you jealous. I cut his hair, that's all."
    "What have you been slipping me?" My father held up the drink with the placebo.
    "It's a love potion," my mother said. "Have you gone so crazy you can't understand that?"
    "Did he tell you what this place was worth?" my father yelled. He kept waving the drink with the elixir wildly. "Did he tell you what would replace those cows?"
    "I just cut his hair," my mother said again. "That's all."
    And then my father did something miraculous; he pitched back his drink and swallowed what he knew. I'm not sure what that instant meant to him, but my father must have suspected that nothing was certain anymore. He probably wondered if the baby was even his. This was before DNA testing, when all we had for confirmation was blood types. For me, it was the end of a Sears Roebuck view of things--where happiness was ordered--and the beginning of a cosmology in which love accepts the prospects of deceit.
    My father took a new deck of cards from the mantel and placed them on the coffee table. He made a production of shuffling the deck. "Cut you for our future," he said. "Winner take all." He didn't palm the ace and took his luck straight on. He flipped over a sorry six. My mother drew her card and sighed and gave him her best Giaconda smile.
    "You win." She quickly hid her card deep in the deck. Here was true witchcraft. My mother tore up the divorce papers and asked my father how he planned to take care of the new addition to our family. He said not to worry--it was taken care of. The Emporium had been leased, and on it would sit the first shopping center in Haw River. Later, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, we would be among the first to rush inside and fill our carts. In the years to come, a movie theater would be added, and as a teenager I would grope at love in the back row under a silver-screen promise of romance.
    "Why did you let me think you were building a driving range?" asked my mother.
    "So the property would have to be zoned commercial." My father smiled. "The fact that a city councilman lost his socks to me didn't hurt, either." My father walked over to his golf bag propped in the corner and inspected his clubs. "Leave it to me to buy mail order clubs." My mother laughed and took a big drink and said that golf was as dumb an idea as cosmology. Together they laughed the way two people do when what they know about each other settles into the safe place where we keep secrets. My father went into his bedroom and brought out his stash of golf hats with tassels. We each wore one as he led us outside and lit his Emporium. He sat a box of balls by our feet.

 

~

I'd like to say that my parents whacked golf balls like pros that night or that their marriage in the years to come wasn't messy. They sliced more than they drove, and several times they missed so completely that the air from the ill-aimed swing blew the ball feebly off the tee. They gave me a putter--who cared if it was the wrong club--and told me to drive a few to heaven. A curious neighbor driving either to his home or to a quick dalliance with love slowed and honked. He paused briefly at the strange sight of a family dressed in silly hats, struggling with a game we would never fully master. He watched my father hook one, shook his head, then sped away. His moving headlights caught us against the backdrop of the starkly lit cow pasture, and for an instant we had two shadows. It was as if a sorcerer's lantern had cast our lives upon a screen. I wondered what that neighbor thought of the quick moment the swing was true, and sound uttered was as solidly satisfying as the swack on a baby's butt after a particularly troublesome delivery. Could he feel the difference between a hook and a slice, had he ever played night golf and lost sight of the ball, did he recognize our love as kin to his own as we struggled to upgrade the real estate of our hearts?

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