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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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BOOK: The Year Everything Changed
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She opened the one from the lawyer first.

Dear Ms. Walker:

I’m writing to you on behalf of your father, Jessie Patrick Reed. I regret to inform you that Mr. Reed is dying. He has expressed a desire to see you again, and in light of the finite time left him, I’m sure you will understand the urgency involved.

Elizabeth’s structured world imploded, a star collapsing into a black hole. The sun, the birds, the crisp morning air were no more, in their place a phalanx of rancorous memories.

Mr. Reed has asked me to tell you that he understands why you might feel a meeting is not in your best interest, but he is prepared to do whatever necessary to encourage you to change your mind. To facilitate your travel to Sacramento I am enclosing a round-trip airline ticket and information about the arrangements for the car and driver that will be waiting for you when you arrive. It is not necessary to confirm. If you have any questions, please feel free to call me at any time.

Regards,

Lucy Hargreaves

“You
bastard
.” Long-repressed pain and anger flared through her like flames through a summer-parched forest. He was summoning her as if she were supposed to care that he was dying?

“Well, I don’t,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, old man, you died a long time ago.”

Chapter Six
Jessie

Jessie peered at Lucy over the top of his menu. She studied the list of Italian dishes as if she might really be considering something besides a salad. They were at Biba’s, one of Sacramento’s finest restaurants. The food came in reasonable portions, and the bill was rarely less than what someone who worked in fast food made in a week.

Lunch had been Lucy’s idea. A good one, but not for the reason she’d tendered. He didn’t need an excuse. He liked being with her. Always had, and always would, even if it meant letting her think he needed company while he waited for the meeting she’d scheduled with his daughters that afternoon.

He was ready for fireworks—more than ready, he was looking forward to it. But he was more than a little nervous, too. He had a lot to say and a nagging certainty he wouldn’t be given a lot of time to say it. He’d finally reached the point in the dying process where he could feel the difference between the pain that came with the disease, which the doctor had told him was no longer in remission, and the signs that his body was shutting down. He hated being aware of such things. Most of all he hated thinking about them.

Lucy laid her menu to the side. “What are you having?”

“The lobster ravioli.”

“Kind of rich, don’t you think?”

He chuckled.

“Habit,” Lucy said.

“Since when?”

“All right, so it’s not. But maybe it should have been.”

“Wouldn’t have made any difference.” He took a sip of the pinot noir the waiter had recommended. It slipped over his tongue with an elegant fruitiness that managed to penetrate the metallic taste of medicine in his mouth. He did love a good wine and was grateful he could still appreciate this small indulgence. “And think of all the incredible meals I would have missed.”

“Kind of like skipping dessert on the
Titanic
.”

This made him laugh. “Precisely.”

“Still, I think I’ll have the spinach and pine nut salad.”

“Live a little, Lucy. For me. Just this once try the ravioli.”

Long seconds passed before she picked up the menu again and replied, “I’ll make you a deal.”

He sat back in his chair and nodded for her to go on.

She, too, sat back. “For twenty years you’ve changed the subject every time I asked you about your past.”

“I didn’t want to bore you.”

“You knew you wouldn’t.”

“How can you be so sure? Wouldn’t you rather talk about something that matters now? Like this rumor I heard that you’re thinking about retiring.”

“You’re doing it again, Jessie.”

“So I am,” he admitted.

She folded her arms across her chest. “I’ll up the stakes. You know that chocolate cake you’re always insisting I try?”

He’d never lacked for women in his life, but until Lucy he’d never known what it was to love one intellectually as well as emotionally. God, he was going to miss her. He glanced up and saw the waiter working his way toward them.

“Why do you want to know about my past?” It was a meaningless proposition, a means for two old friends to pass the time. Nothing he could tell her would change anything.

“Curiosity—pure and simple. I’ve been thinking about your girls and that they all come from different mothers. I know you’ve been married twice. . . .”

“It’s a long story.”

“I have time.”

He looked at his watch. “Not that much.”

“Then give me a chapter.”

It was then he knew just how afraid she was that the meeting with his girls was going to turn out badly. “You want me to play your Scheherazade and spin tales for you?”

“Maybe.”

“It won’t work, you know.”

“Indulge me.”

“I’ll give you twenty questions.”

She smiled, satisfied. “One—why did you leave Oklahoma?”

“That’s easy. It was leave or starve.”

“You’re going to have to do better than that if you expect me to put cream sauce in this mouth.”

The waiter hovered expectantly. Jessie smiled. “You drive a hard bargain.”

Lucy returned the smile before she looked at the waiter. “We’ll both be having the lobster ravioli.”

Jessie rarely looked back. The past put too much weight on a man’s shoulders and made it harder to move through life than it needed to be. But some memories were etched in his mind like daguerreotypes. His last day in Oklahoma was one of them. Although filled with a crimson sorrow, an acorn dust, and an indigo of broken dreams, the image always came to him in stark black and white.

In his mind’s eye he saw himself standing on the porch of his grandfather’s farmhouse outside Guymon, Oklahoma, watching his father check the knots on the ropes he’d used to secure the family’s belongings in the back of their old Ford truck. His mother stood to the side, her hand resting on the brass handle of the wardrobe that had been passed through her family from mother to daughter for six generations.

His father had promised to make room for the wardrobe—a promise he couldn’t keep.

Jessie looked down at his hand. “I can still feel the splinters in the porch pillar of that old house and still remember thinking how I’d sanded and painted it just two summers before. The land, the building, the trees, the wells—everything was in ruin from two years of wind and dust. And yet all I could think about was how hard I’d worked on that damned old porch pillar. . . .”

The past took hold of Jessie. He slipped into memories of Oklahoma so vivid he wasn’t sure which he gave voice to and which he only heard in his mind.

Jessie’s Story

It was my birthday. September 19, l935. I was sixteen years old. Old enough to be on my own. Older than my uncle had been when he struck out on his own, and argument enough to talk my ma and pa into letting me stay behind while they went to California to be with Pa’s brother now.

No one wished me happy birthday. I figured they didn’t remember, or if they did, Ma told them not to say anything. No sense in making the leaving any harder than it already was.

I was careful not to let on that I wasn’t as sad as she expected I would and should be. Being on my own was an adventure I’d been living in my head for weeks, and now it was about to happen for real. I would have felt different if I’d known that they would never find my uncle and what the move would do to Pa, how all that happened to him and the rest of the family in California would drive him so deep into himself that he would stop talking two years later and stop eating the year after that.

When Pa decided it wasn’t possible to add one more thing to that old truck, Ma lined everyone up to say good-bye. She made my sister, Rose, hug me, but my brother, Bobby Ray, refused. He punched me on the arm harder than I felt was right or fitting, so I hit him back. We would’ve been down on the ground rolling in the dirt if Grandma hadn’t stepped in to pull us apart. She put her hands on my shoulders and held me there, looking at me like she knew it was for the last time.

“You got no business staying behind by yourself. There’s nothing for you here. It’s done with, Jessie. Leave it be and come with us to California.”

Somehow she’d gotten it in her head that I was staying behind to work the farm. Pa never could tell her that it didn’t belong to them anymore, that the bank had foreclosed. “I gotta try, Grandma,” I said figuring it was what she needed to hear.

When it came Pa’s turn to say good-bye he shook my hand like I wasn’t just his boy anymore but a grown man. “You stay out of trouble, Jessie.”

Ma was crying when she put her arms around me, squeezed me like it would hurt to let me go, and whispered in my ear, “If things don’t work out the way you want, you come lookin’ for us.”

“I will.”

She wasn’t taking the easy answer. She grabbed hold of my wrists and looked me straight in the eye. “You promise me.”

“I promise,” I told her. And I meant it. Finding them in California one day was part of my plan. But I wouldn’t go there because I needed something. When I arrived it would be with pockets full of money that I’d use to buy them another farm.

Ma didn’t look back at me when the truck pulled out on the road, only my brother and grandmother. And then it was just Bobby Ray. He stood in the back of the truck, balancing himself on the trunks and mattresses and pots and pans, swinging both arms in the air like he was cheering for me and not mad anymore that he couldn’t stay, too.

It was the last time I saw my brother. I’ve been back there a thousand times in my mind looking for something, wishing I could find a look or word that let him know I thought he was the best brother a kid could have and that I loved him. But I never do. Bobby Ray wasn’t much for sentimentality and would’ve been all over me if I’d have tried something like that.

I stayed rooted to the spot like one of the dying sycamore trees out back watching until there wasn’t anything to see but a long trail of dust hanging in the noon sky. When I was sure they weren’t coming back for something they might have forgot, I went inside to get the suitcase that Ma and I had hidden in the front bedroom closet.

Knowing there was no way I’d ever be back, I took a last look around the place. Ma had left the sheets hanging across the ceilings, her way of catching the dust that seeped from the attic like talc through a sieve. Right up to the day she left she’d changed those sheets every morning before breakfast. She’d sweep and dust and check the rags stuffed in the cracks around the windows and under the doors while the rest of us were washing off the dirt that had settled overnight on our faces and in our ears and noses. Even with all she did, we could write our names in the dust on the edge of our plates by the time she had the eggs fried. When the winds blew, my sister washed dishes before and after we ate and we still felt the grit between our teeth with every bite.

It was my job to help with the laundry. I’d empty the wash water three or four times before it came anywhere near close to running clear, dumping it in the vegetable garden and spillin’ as much as got there. Ma would hang the clothes out to dry, and I’d watch for wind so we wouldn’t have to do it all over again. Sometimes it worked, most often it didn’t.

She was the last one to bed and yet still got up in the middle of the night to check the sheets she’d hung over my sister’s bed and the wet rags she’d given me and Bobby Ray to wear over our faces. Most mornings it wasn’t the sun that woke us but someone coughing up something that looked like tobacco juice.

Right up to the end, even when he couldn’t see three feet past the end of the tractor, Pa tried to work the fields. He’d have me and Bobby Ray walk the rows so he could follow, the blade digging into the dirt and half of it blowing away.

I remember sitting on the porch one night talking about where all that dirt was going to land when it finally settled again. Half of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Missouri was floating around in those clouds. Bobby Ray said he liked thinking it was headed for New York to bury the men who ran the banks.

I wandered around the house for a long time after everyone left like I expected to find something.

The mattresses were gone, but not the beds that had held them. Closets held the “maybe” clothes—maybe it would fit one day or maybe it could be cut down or let out for someone else to wear. The sideboard in the dining room still held linens, the cupboards in the kitchen the dishes Ma had saved to buy at the five-and-dime.

I just kept going from room to room until finally the quiet and the emptiness convinced me that it wasn’t home anymore, that when I left there would be no reason to look back because nothing that counted was there anymore.

It stuck in my throat that someone from the bank would decide what was worth selling and what would be thrown away. Once planted, the frustration took root and grew like nothing had grown on the farm in a long, long time. My anger against the wind and the drought and the dust, the unfairness of Ma leaving her wardrobe, of Pa leaving his pride, of everything I couldn’t do anything about had a name—the Guymon First National Trust Bank.

Knowing what I had to do, what had become the only thing I could do, I took my suitcase out on the porch and spent the next hour hoisting the wardrobe back into the house. I waited around until sunset watching a coil of dust gather on the horizon. Panic-stricken birds raced the cloud, the weaker ones falling out of the sky, dying from sheer exhaustion.

When the worst of the dust and wind came through, rabbits and coyotes and all manner of wild things died of suffocation, some in their dens, some looking for a place to hide, some just lying down and giving in.

I swore I wasn’t going to be one of them. I was sixteen years old, and I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything stop me from going and doing and seeing and succeeding. Nothing was going to hold me back or hold me down.

The air turned still before it kicked up a spit of dust. Just enough wind to do what I had in mind. I went into the kitchen and pulled the matches from the drawer beside the old wood-burning stove. The clothes in the closets caught quick and burned hot, and I had to race to reach the other bedrooms. Before I bolted for the front door I stood in the middle of the living room and felt the power of what I’d done, the heat burning my face and drying the first tears I’d shed since I was five and saw my grandpa gored to death by a bull.

Outside I watched just long enough to be sure the wind would finish what I’d started, then turned my back and headed for Oklahoma City.

“Now I understand why you feel the way you do about banks,” Lucy said.

Her words snapped Jessie back into the world that was coming to an end instead of just beginning. “I got carried away. Sorry.” He was embarrassed. “There’s nothing more boring than listening to an old man ramble on about things that don’t matter to anyone but him.”

BOOK: The Year Everything Changed
11.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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