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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

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BOOK: Meteors in August
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The first white men slashed through the underbrush with the glint of silver in their eyes. They crouched in the forest, squatting like old men beneath the bristling pines. By instinct, they climbed toward the timberline, where the dwarf trees clung to brittle rock, wrapping their roots around the stony soil, growing twisted and gray, no taller than children.

When the men stood at last on bare rock and saw below them green slopes and glacial pools, glistening jade and turquoise under a blazing sun, they must have thought they were little gods. Not one of them could imagine the disappointments of the future: the shallow veins of silver, the barren mines closing, all the big-shouldered men condemned to labor among the trees, giving up their dreams of sudden wealth to lumber in the hills and live as mortals.

The town of Willis never boomed, but Main Street got busy enough to hang a traffic light in November of 1966. Our Main Street was actually a highway: anyone going to or from Canada had to pass through Willis; now they had to stop. The light was set to change so fast that almost no one could sneak through town without slamming on his brakes and taking a good look at the Last Chance Bar and the Lutheran church. A person on his way to the border wouldn't realize, of course, that two years before we had a light this very corner had been the scene of one of the town's most bitter disputes.

I was almost nine the summer Elliot Foot cleared out the shelves of Pike's Grocery and replaced them with barstools. The Saturday afternoon he raised his sign, the men, women and children of Willis were split into two groups: on one side of the street, a rowdy band cheered on Elliot Foot and his two brothers; on the other side, an inspired mob shouted that a bar facing a church was an affront to God, and we were certain to bear His vengeance.

I preferred the excitement of the joyful crowd, but I watched the frenzy of the Lutherans and their leader, Freda Graves. I knew Mrs. Graves the way I knew most people in Willis. It wasn't a town where a person could be a stranger, unless you were an Indian and folks made a deliberate effort not to learn your name or mind what you were doing.

Now I think that was the day Freda Graves got a hold on me. At the time, she seemed like a crazy woman. If not for her desperation, she would have looked just plain foolish. But later, when everything she said came true, I started thinking about her more and more, remembering how she saw the future. And I came to believe she was the one person in Willis who might help me understand what had happened to Nina, and to me.

Reverend Piggott was nowhere in sight. He couldn't afford to get folks riled. The same ones who drank themselves silly on Saturday night might drop an extra dollar in the collection plate on Sunday morning. So he left Freda Graves to do his dirty work. She was the Lutheran church's most active member. She pounded the organ with a passion that shook the rafters; she sang with the tremor of the saved. I had seen her at least once a month my whole life, but I had never seen her like this. She feared Elliot Foot would steal her thunder by securing his sign before dawn, so she'd slept all night on the steps of the church. beneath the great white arch of the door. Her hair was matted flat to one side of her head and stuck out in a sharp peak on the other. She rose to her full six feet, her chest swelling, her wide nostrils flaring.

Elliot Foot had no intention of raising his sign in the weak light before sunrise. He wanted an audience. He longed for the fierce glare of noon. Freda Graves was doing a fine job of whipping up more business.

By eleven-fifteen the crowd began to grumble, fretting about the heat. Women pushed their noses against the smoke-tinted windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the Foot brothers. Several of the men muttered about popping the damn lock and helping themselves. When Sheriff Wolfe caught wind of that idea, he brought their nonsense to a halt. He could change a man's mind with a glance. I trusted the sheriff to do his job and hoped he'd never have reason to come after me. Other than the Indians, Caleb Wolfe was the darkest man in Willis. No one dared say anything outright, but in private people questioned the purity of his blood, the skin of his grandfather and the morals of his grandmother.

As I grew older I understood that our tolerance for the sheriff depended on the fact that he had never married. Over the years, plenty of Indians drifted through Willis, hoping to find work at the mill. They lived at the foot of the hills on the west side of town. Their houses were abandoned trailers and plywood shacks. When one family moved out, another moved in. Most disappeared within the month, and few of their children ever attended our school. Children from the reservation had to be tested. They rarely passed, of course. Many of us wouldn't have passed either; but as far as I knew, no one ever suggested the tests might be unfair. Thirteen-year-olds were placed in fourth grade. Humiliation kept them home. Occasionally administrators slipped: One year a light-skinned woman came to the school alone to register her three sons. The last name was a French one; no questions were asked, no tests demanded. But there were plenty of complaints when teachers discovered the Champeaux brothers favored their red father rather than their fair mother.

Daddy said Indians were born lazy, that they turned tail at the first sign of trouble and headed back to the reservation, where they got a government check every month for doing nothing but sitting on their hind ends.

I watched Caleb Wolfe hold back the crowd and remembered the trouble Father had caused a certain Indian just a year before. I thought about the dogs in the woods and the mud on my father's boots.

As we waited on the hot street no one dared to cross Sheriff Wolfe—despite the color of his skin. He was short and bowlegged. His stomach hung over his belt, but his fat was hard, not sloppy, the kind of fat a man can use like muscle: for weight and force. The people who'd been talking about busting locks were suddenly nowhere to be seen.

The white light of noon stripped us, left us without shadow or weight. A dangerous fervor swelled through the crowd and threatened to pull us off the ground, a hundred helium balloons cut free. Gwen Holler stood next to me, poking my ribs with her elbow every time light wavered in the glass. I told her to stop, but she didn't hear me, so I jabbed her back and she got the idea. My cousin Jesse darted through the crowd, pinching girls' butts so they jumped and squealed. The air was full of their little pig cries. He gave my bum a squeeze and I whirled, smacked him up the side of the head hard as I could. Jesse only laughed at me.

At precisely three minutes after twelve, according to Freda Graves—“Oh Lord, let us remember this hour”—we heard the dull click of the lock being released, like a trigger hitting an empty chamber. Gwen gripped my hand, squashing all my fingers together. The door creaked open slowly. Inside, the bar was dark as a cave, and I realized how quiet the street was all of a sudden.

Elliot's two younger brothers, Vern and Ralph, appeared. They hadn't changed since the last time I'd seen them; their beards were still long and matted, their mouths still hidden by hair. They lumbered through the doorway, carrying a long blue sign with bright red letters. The crowd took a single breath as if they'd seen a beautiful thing.

Freda Graves shook with the force of her own words. Her huge bony hands drew pictures in the air, scooped out lakes of fire, scattered the valleys with our bleached and numberless bones. “This is the eve of destruction,” she shouted, “opening a house of sin to face the House of the Lord.” From the bottom of the steps, Myron Evans shouted, “Amen, sister.”

Ralph and Vern each slipped a heavy loop of rope around the sign, preparing to hoist it, then ducked inside the dark bar again. “Mark my words well,” said Mrs. Graves, “this is the day of our downfall.” She sucked hard at the air, filled her lungs, and seemed to grow before our eyes, her shoulders square and broad as a man's, her legs thick as old pines. “We are leading our brothers and sisters into temptation. We walk in the valley of the shadow of death, and I fear evil.”

“Amen!” Myron yelled again. His support wasn't helping Freda's cause. He blinked too much when he talked. It made me nervous just to watch him, as if I had to run to the bathroom. Pale, game-legged Myron Evans, a grown man who still lived with his mother and never learned to drive a car, was not generally admired by the people of Willis.

The brothers emerged with a pair of silver ladders. They propped the ladders against the building, giving them a jerk and a shove to be sure they were steady. Elliot waited inside the bar. Mrs. Graves's audience waned now that the action had started; a few of the good Lutherans had strayed to our side of the street. Still she was undaunted. She called out to her meager band of followers. “Come stand beside me, Minnie Hathaway,” she shouted. This renewed our curiosity for a moment. We all knew Minnie. We could smell her in the heat. She doused herself with perfume, a daily reminder of her dear father's funeral, of his coffin drowned in gardenias. She wore white gloves, every day of her life, through all the blistering days of summer and all the brutal days of winter.

Minnie minced up the steps toward Mrs. Graves. She was a bird woman with no wings, brittle-boned and light enough to fly if she'd had some way to get off the ground. “Minnie Hathaway is our beloved sister,” Freda said, gripping Minnie to her breast. “And we all know of her struggles.” We certainly did. Early in the day Minnie Hathaway was a perfect gentlewoman, so proper and elegant you almost forgot she lived at the rooming house and shared a bathroom with three men and the Fat Lady. But when Minnie got a few drinks in her, she flew into fits that twisted her cracked face and made her cuss in ways that were embarrassing even to men. “Bad as an Indian with liquor,” folks said. I was warned not to listen to nasty talk. “Don't judge what you can't understand,” Mother often told me. I tried not to judge. What did I know? I was only nine years old. But nothing Mother told me could have stopped me from listening to what people said. If nasty talk was bad for me, I was already poisoned.

At last Elliot appeared in the bright street. The crowd cheered and clapped when they saw him, hero of the day. He was the runt of the family: a small, jittery man with a full beard and a serious lack of hair. He nodded to his brothers. Ralph and Vern each grabbed a line of rope and started up the twin ladders.

They braced themselves on the ledge and slowly pulled the sign toward them. “Is it fair?” Mrs. Graves bellowed. “Is it fair to tempt our own sister this way? Is it just to remind her of her sorrow each time she leaves this holy place?”

“Tell her to leave by the back door,” Vern yelled. The crowd hooted.

“Forgive them,” Freda Graves moaned, raising her hands to Heaven, “for they know not what they do.”

The sign caught the lip of the ledge; the crowd gasped and stepped back, a single being with a single mind. Elliot was the only one who didn't budge. He stood his ground, ready to accept his fate if the sign crashed on his head. Vern and Ralph each gave their end a jiggle and counted: “One, two, three … heave!” The sign was up and the mob whooped. In a matter of minutes the wires were attached and the red letters blinked on and off:

Mrs. Graves made a futile attempt to sway the throng as the Foot brothers riveted the sign in place. “Repent, O ye sinners. Turn and be forgiven, Elliot Foot.” But Elliot didn't turn; he held the door open while his first customers streamed inside the cool bar. “I see you on a darkening path,” Freda warned. “O Lord, the way is dim. A tear disappears in a well. A soul shrivels in Hell.”

Gwen and I sneaked up to the door with everyone else. Inside the bar the light was murky, the air already clouded with smoke. We had just poked our heads over the threshold when I felt a swat on my behind. I whirled to face my attacker. It was Nina, my sixteen-year-old sister. “Lizzie Macon, you better get your little ass home if you want to have any butt left to sit on,” she said. “Daddy would skin you like a rabbit if he saw you here.” She glared at Gwen. “You too, Gwen Holler. Children got no business hanging around a bar.”

Gwen said, “You're not my sister. I don't have to listen to you.” Then she stuck out the tip of her pointed tongue and darted inside.

I don't know who made me madder: my sister for spoiling our fun, or Gwen for going inside without me. But Gwen was already out of sight and Nina was right in front of me. When she took hold of my arm, I shook her loose and said, “I wish you'd leave me alone. I wish I didn't have a sister.”

The next summer, my cruel wish became a curse. Nina disappeared. When you live in Willis, Montana, you know there aren't too many places to run where they won't find you within the hour and drag you back to your own front door. But my sister found a place, and it was a long time before any of us saw her again.

Before Nina vanished, she dug through the shoe box Mom kept stashed in the hall closet and carefully cut her own head out of each photograph. She didn't want to see posters of herself stuck on every telephone pole for a hundred miles. She left the rest of us intact, so we're still there, grinning stupidly at the camera. I see Nina's legs and Nina's pink dress, the one I yearned for but never wore. I see Nina's hands clasped in front of her, and I recognize her wrists as easily as I would recognize her face. My sister.

In the photographs I am a skinny child with big knees. I keep my hands in my pockets or behind my back. I always thought my arms were too long. Whatever the year, my hair is chopped off short. Mother had a fear of ticks and lice and believed in prevention. She said I didn't take care of myself. I look like a freckled boy forced to wear a dress. My eyes are pale and surprised, as if the flash frightens me every time.

One of my parents is always missing from the picture, but I feel them behind the camera, creating us again and again. Mother has a tiny waist and thin hands. Though I am still a child, I can see the startling ways I will outgrow her. My hidden hands are monstrous. She wears faded dresses, but the cloth is good. Her shoes have chunky heels and tight laces. She is a sensible woman.

BOOK: Meteors in August
12.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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