Seaons of Love and Rain
by JAMES CARPENTER
The boy gave Mike Kavanaugh the message, then backed the pickup out of the driveway and, grinding the gears, drove back toward town much too fast, brown dust billowing behind him in a feculent blizzard. The dust hung in the oppressive calm of the August air, drifting slowly out from the road to soil washing left on lines too late into the afternoon. It tinged the limp, dangling clothes a rusty brown as it rose powdery from the loose red gravel. Before the boy was out of sight, younger wives were taking down the clothes to be rewashed, but the older women would wait until after supper, when most of the rest of their work was done and the clothes had dried and then take them down and shake the dust out as best they could and fold them and stack them for tomorrow’s ironing just as they were. Mike went into the house to tell Lillian that they’d sent the boy to let him know that a little work was waiting at the shop if he wanted it, four or five shifts worth, and to ask her to pack his dinner bucket. They said I can start tonight, he told her. I’m going to lay down for a little bit and then I’ll go in. I can’t say when I’ll be back, so just pack whatever we can spare. Mike lived with his family on this scorched patch of hardscrabble clay and tried to farm it a little, but he was a machinist by trade, a turret lathe operator. He was good at it, which meant he worked fast and could switch cutting tools for hours on end without making mistakes, so that at the end of a shift, his scrap box rarely held anything but air. He liked the work—where others saw only tedium and mind-numbing repetition, he heard and felt rhythms: The pattern of the tools switching, cutter to die to tap and back to cutter—the sure clicking of each tool to its part of the task as he spun it into place, matched by a clicking within him, like tiny wheels of bone and ligament pivoting in their sockets. Suspended within the harmonies of himself and of himself and the machine joining together, he could work straight through for as many shifts as it took to finish a job. Once he stood by his lathe for three full days—when walking away would mean another operator coming in to take his place and his wages. And silence. He left that afternoon, a Tuesday, walking the five miles to the shop, and worked straight through until a little past four in the morning on Thursday and got home just after the sun came up. As he turned into the gravel driveway, he saw Jack Brooks slip from the back door, the screen swinging shut behind him with a soft thump, and march off toward his own house across the field. Mike stiffened, rigid as the cattle barrier beneath his feet, too tired even to shout at Brooks, let alone chase after him and run him down. He stood there for a while in the gathering daylight and the rising heat, cicadas already spoiling the morning and anything that might have been sweet in it. He thought for a bit about what to do and then went up in the barn and made up a pallet in the loft with straw and some burlap sacks and lay down and slept until early afternoon. When he awoke, he lay still and thought about whether he ought to just let it go. Lillian had done this kind of thing before and would no doubt do it again—with someone else if not Brooks. There was a nest of barn swallows high up next to the roof and he watched them drop from the rafters and sweep up and out through the upper loft door and come back in a little while, rolling and diving as if they were writing letters to him in invisible trails of air, in a language he couldn’t understand. He decided to go ahead and climbed down and went out the back door. In the decades to come he relived this moment over and over, the swallows and the buzzing flies and the gnats fluttering in his face, trying to drink from his eyes. If he had just made the other choice, Little Mike would probably still be alive. He walked straight back from the barn where no one could see him from the house and on into the windbreak of red maples and poplar that stood at the edge of the field and worked his way back to the road and eventually to the driveway and on up to the house. Lillian was taking bread from the oven of the coal-fired cookstove. He told her that they had more work for him and that he had just come home to get his dinner bucket filled and to check on things. He put his bucket on the table, square with the red and white checks of the vinyl tablecloth that always felt greasy no matter how much Lillian tried to keep it clean. Dirt had become part and fiber of the covering, as dirty as the cloth of this marriage. He went upstairs and into their bedroom, the bed still unmade, and took a fresh work shirt from the clothespress and clean overalls. He got down on his knees and reached under the bed for the double-barrel 12-guage he kept there, and got some shells from the drawer of the bedside table and put them in his pocket and wrapped the shotgun in the overalls and carried everything out to the outside pump. He worked the handle until water rose up cold and clear. He picked up the washbasin they kept out there on a bench and took out the bar of brown lye soap that lay under it and caught the chilled water in the basin and set it upright on the bench. He took off his dirty shirt and washed himself. When he was done, he carried the basin off a bit and tossed the dirty water into the weeds behind the house and carried it back, wiped it dry with a rag, and placed the lye soap on the bench and turned the basin over and laid it back down, covering the soap. He picked up the clean clothes with the shotgun wrapped up in them and went back to the barn. He unwrapped the shotgun and took it up into the loft and hid it under the straw where he had slept, but he kept the shells in his pocket in case one of the kids found the gun. He went back down onto the main floor and changed into the fresh clothes and just stood there for a while. A welcoming coolness rose from the dirt floor packed hard as stone from years of horses’ hooves and wagons pulled back and forth and the thousands of steps he had taken here. He breathed in the smell of the barn’s oaken beams, seasoned for a century but retaining the redolent sweetness of the living trees from which they had been hewn and the manure smell that through time had come to permeate not just the walls of the stalls but the very veins of the barn, branching deep within the eight-inch posts that held up the entire building, and into the roof boards and the clapboards that clad the structure in a cloak grown and growing ever more gray. Even the smell of shit was sweet to him, familiar and restful. A barn cat, a tortoiseshell, with yellow-green eyes, slinked along the far wall, silent—wary and watching Mike as if he were a singularly dangerous threat or a predatory rival. He gathered up his dirty clothes and went back into the house. Lillian asked where he’d been off to and he told her that he’d gone out to the barn to change where it was cool. He’d had enough of this heat for now and was going to be standing in even worse heat through the night and just wanted a little respite. He took the dirty clothes upstairs and put them in the hamper and came back down and got his dinner bucket and started for the door. He told his wife not to expect him before sometime Saturday and left, closing the screen door gently behind him, and walked off down the driveway and out to the road. He only walked as far as the woods that edged the last farm where the road turned toward town. He looked quickly about. There was no one in sight when he sidled off the road and across the ditch embroidered in chicory and tiger lilies, their intertwined blue and orange like the border of a debutante’s sampler. He shouldered through a line of sumac that in another month would be bleeding red into the ground and walked into the woods a hundred yards or so and found an old white oak and sat down on the earth and leaned his back against the tree and simply waited through the long afternoon and into the twilight, the droning daytime insect sounds finally fading and the music of crickets and tree frogs replacing them, as the cool evening air displaced the heat of the day. He didn’t try to sleep, not in the evening nor at midnight nor in the dead of the night, but waited, eyes wide open in the darkness. When the first birds began their chirping and it would soon be light, he pulled himself up from the ground and walked back out of the woods and toward the house. He didn’t take the driveway this time, but came in by way of the windbreak beyond the barn and went up into the loft and got the shotgun and took the rock-salt shells from his pocket and loaded the gun. He climbed down and walked over to the house and sat in his old rocker on the back porch and waited, the gun across his lap with the safety off. Shapes began to move in the lightening gray of morning arriving. The songs of the night diminished as the sounds of the day increased and he heard a chair scruff on the floor inside and a man’s muffled voice and Lillian answering. The screen door creaked open and Brooks stepped out onto the porch, the heels of his dirty boots thudding across the gray tongue-in-groove floor. Mike let him take a couple of steps and said in an even and sure voice, Hi there, Jack, you’re up pretty early for a thief, ain’t you? Brooks froze for a moment as if he’d been hit over the head with an axe handle and then spun around and saw Mike and a second later he saw the 12-guage and he was off across the yard faster than Mike expected he could run. Mike missed him with the first barrel, but got him high on the right thigh with the second, just before he made the corner of the barn. From the way he yelled, Mike knew Brooks was hurt—more than Mike wanted. And more blood poured out of him than rock salt should have drawn. But the wound slowed Brooks only a little, the fear of the new pain he thought was coming all but erasing the pain he already had. At that moment Brooks could not know that it was only salt in his leg and not shot, or that Mike would not be reloading the shotgun. And so he ran. Mike watched him as he got down on all fours, and ran like a hound on scent, his arms pounding back between his legs and his legs gaining traction and pushing off, even as he reached forward with his arms for another cycle. Bounding like that he made it to the barn, but instead of bolting for the field, ran straight up the barn wall like a rabid squirrel and squatted up on the peak of the roof, his buttocks jammed up against a lightning rod. He crouched there, looking down on Mike, his face twisted into a grotesque mask of fear and anger. Mike heard the screen door screech open and turned to look at Lillian. They stood in silence, trapped in each other’s eyes for what seemed then like a very long time but for what was really only an evaporating glance that seemed to endure simply because it would linger forever in their memories. When he looked back at the barn, Brooks was gone. Mike reached out and held the door for Lillian, a courtly courtesy seemingly at odds with these rough precincts and the indelicacy of the moment, but because of the very harshness of their lives, necessary and fundamental, civility their only barrier to despair, and he abided by its laws, if for no other reason than habit. He followed her into the kitchen and sat at the table and brushed the checked tablecloth lightly with his fingers. He heard Sarah crying from upstairs and stood up and without a word went up to her and comforted her and put her back to sleep. He came down the stairs and sat again at the kitchen table. He listened without looking at Lillian as she lifted a burner lid from the stove and stirred the embers from last night’s supper. She tossed in some kindling, waited for it to catch, then poured in some coal from the green copper bucket, and replaced the burner, the grating of iron on iron as it slid into its place sounding like bones grinding into dust. She took down the coffee pot and filled the basket with grounds and broke up an egg shell and put that in with the grounds and put the pot on the stove to perc. She scooped out some bacon grease from the can she kept under the counter and got out a frying pan and struck the spoon against the side of the pan so the grease would slide off. The clang of metal on metal startled Mike and he looked up and watched her as she sliced a couple of potatoes and threw them in with the grease. Watching her, he reflected yet again that maybe he shouldn’t have married her in the first place, and probably wouldn’t have if he’d had other choices. But back then he was a widower in his thirties with two children and no way to care for them. He had few prospects, with the war just over and the young men returning, handsome and gallant in the eyes of young women. He couldn’t compete with the romance of war, but thought he had a chance with Lillian. Though beautiful with her black hair and blue eyes, her prospects too were limited. Her father had a craziness about him that shied off boys her age. She still kept a picture of him in the sitting room where she sewed her quilts. Mike hated that picture—his father-in-law in his youth and a three-piece suit, plain black, without stripes or pattern of any kind, wrinkled and ill-fitting. The starched collar on his shirt is too tight even for his thin neck, the flesh bulging just a bit where it cuts into him. His shoulders are too slim for his hips, so though he seems to be trying to affect a causal stance, his arms slope stiffly outward along the length of his torso. Just under the lapel of his unbuttoned jacket, you can see a bit of watch chain hooked to the top button of his vest. His bent hands droop from his sleeves like paralyzed claws. His tie is crooked and he is squinting, his brows squeezing toward the center of his face making him look angry in spite of the faintest shade of a smile on his lips. He stands in front of a painted backdrop, a picture of a lavishly draped window looking out on a garden of flowering dogwood and in the distance, near the top of a hill, sits a white city, nearly hidden in the trees. You can see traces of him in Lillian—around her eyes, where the lines have set straight and in the angular slant of her brows, and in the lift of her chin, defiant now as her father was then, even with the photographer. Old Man Brown would have none of Mike and refuse to let him call. So Mike started attending the First Presbyterian Church where he could steal a word with Lillian before and after services. He did that for over a year until on her twenty-first birthday, he rented a carriage and a team and drove out to her house on the other side of town and took her to the justice of the peace and left her father glaring at them on the porch, his arms folded across his chest, silent, aloof, and enraged. And so Mike gained a mother for his own children and the four more they would eventually have together, this woman of pure black hair who would in time come to be more crow than raven in his sight. Mike had promised his first wife that he would take care of the kids and by marrying Lillian he had kept his promise to her and another he had made to himself, to bury and never confess his own inheritance of pain: His mother dying young and the brutal man she left him with. The beatings and the rage and the terrified younger brother Mike left behind when he ran away. The selling of his labors and the selling of himself as he made his way here to Mercer County. These memories he kept from his own children. The lineage of wrath and brutality would stop with him. No possible good could come from their knowing anything at all of their grandfather’s cruelty or how his skin would burn from pale frost, almost silver, to shining black and how his eyes would shine out of that darkness, red as coals in the grate of his face.
Hard times and another war passed. Sarah and Little Mike grew up and went off on their own and in a year or two the other kids would begin to follow. Mike worked steadily enough to buy a second-hand car. One rainy Sunday, Brooks was waiting when Mike drove Lillian and the kids home from church—sitting in the same chair Mike had when he waited for Brooks to sneak out of the house. Mike told Lillian to take the kids and get inside and then turned to Brooks who just said, You best go down to the mine and see to your boy. Brooks stood up and without another word just walked off along the same path he’d once run along in the first light of day. There had been union trouble and Little Mike was wrapped up in it, a perfect camouflage for atrocity, and Mike was afraid. He wondered if maybe it wasn’t better during the Depression when there weren’t enough wages to fight for, when men’s families were hungry and no one thought of a strike, because no one would ever think to let walking a picket line stop them from anything that would get them a dollar’s worth of groceries, even if it meant a twelve-hour shift. But with prosperity came the miners’ strike. In its plan to break it, the Company paid anybody who would cross a picket line double the wages they’d been paying. Some, like Little Mike, seduced by the money, thought they could get away with it by working Sundays, when the strikers would all be at home. Mike told Lillian he was going down to check on Little Mike and raced his old, battered Chevrolet through rain and mud all the way to the mine. But his son was already dead. He was still in the cab, and the drag line was still running and engaged. Its giant bucket lay on the ground and kept pulling up against a pile of slag and slipping back and pulling up again, spasmodically, like the systole and diastole of a primeval copulation. They’d clubbed Little Mike twice, once on his shoulder, probably when he was trying to get up out of the way, and once square in the back of his head. They’d set him up against the toolbox welded to the inside of the cab and they’d had the nerve to stick the bloody sledge they’d used through his crooked arm like a scepter. They’d nailed a shingle to his chest and scrawled Scab on it with his own blood, so that his murder would look like politics instead of revenge long gone cold. From within his grief, all Mike could think of in that moment was the other kids. The truth would imprison them, tyrannize them for the rest of their lives. As much as he wanted to just lie down in the mud and cry, he stood steady in the cold rain and worked through in his mind a way to alter the memory of this moment, an invention engineered from the atoms of what could plausibly be assembled. He thought for a long time, the rain dripping from his hat and down the back of his shirt and puzzled out the bits of the story he would make true from the evidence and witness of violence in whose muddy embrace he stood. When his thinking was done, he crawled into the line’s seat and let off the drag. He raised the derrick and rotated it over to where the men ate their dinners by a pile of empty diesel drums and he knocked over a tree with the bucket so that it fell there and then swung the derrick back and dropped the bucket to the ground the way the safety book says to leave whenever an operator leaves the cab and pressed the engine kill switch so that he could perform the rest of his work in stillness. Cradling Little Mike in his arms, he carried him over to the wooden tables by the fallen tree and laid him in the mud face down so there would be an impression of him there in case anybody came looking later on. He walked back to the cab and got the sledge they’d killed Little Mike with and carried that up the bank and threw it as far as he could into the water in the old mine on the other side. He got some rags and wiped up the blood and bits of brain from the cab floor and scraped them onto the tree and threw the rags down the shitter. He rolled Little Mike over and pulled the shingle off his chest and the nail out of his chest too and threw them down the shitter along with the rags. From among the detritus of scrap and the remnants of men working that littered the muddy ground and the slag heaps and the berms along the mining road, he found a two-by-four with a nail through it and laid that down next to little Mike so somebody might think he’d fallen on it and that would explain the puncture in his chest. He kept his attention on these tasks as he would on his lathe and felt the familiar clicking within him as he moved methodically through everything that had to be done. And all the while he felt Brooks staring down at him from where he was perched at the top of an old pitch pine, his fists clenched, grinning and mocking and still bleeding after all these years from the wound in his leg. He picked Little Mike up again and carried him across the yard and laid him in the back seat of the car and walked back and checked the cab one more time and the ground where he had pulled down the tree and where he had laid Little Mike in the mud and he imagined that the scene could pass the quick look anybody might think to give it, especially with the rain smudging the lines of all that he had just composed, the way doubt defines everything that is true and makes it so. He got in the car and headed for the hospital, racing as fast as he could in the rain. A cop sat in his car halfway to town and when Mike saw him, he slammed on the brakes and jumped out and yelled, My boy’s hurt bad, I got to get him to the hospital! The cop raced off, lights and siren on full, and escorted Mike and Little Mike to the emergency room. When they got there, attendants took Little Mike back and when they asked what happened, Mike told them a dead tree fell on his head in the storm and yelled at them to do something. When they told him it was too late, he yelled again that it couldn’t be. That he was breathing when he put him in the car and to keep on trying. He made as much of a scene as he could, acting out with conviction this final part of the fantasy he’d contrived—though not all of it was artifice—his real grief and pain gave their truth to the story and the people there who saw it, believed it.
Mike Kavanaugh’s children brought him from the county home to lie incontinent, demented, and dying in his own bed on the farm. Every morning, through the shimmering white walls of his room, Mike watches two little children walking to school. They have to skirt a pond beside the road and he’s seen them come close to falling in. He keeps telling people they ought to put up a fence to protect them from the water, but no one listens. He worried so for those children until he saw Little Mike sitting on the bank. Sometimes he sends them in to see Mike and they come right through the wall and he sits with them in the morning’s golden glow and listens to their stories. They ask him to show them the other parts of this wondrous house. He tells them he will some other time. But he knows he won’t. He cannot take them into the darkness and rot of this changing place. He has walked everywhere through it and seen where the appointments of luxury abut the fallen timbers of neglected, decaying walls. Roofs that have split open to the sky and weather, and beneath them lust vented in the opulence of apartments graced with silks and fur. Stairs that rise to nowhere and descend into a void. Rooms without doors and rooms eternally locked. Rooms festive as he entered and repulsive as he left. Home to translucent butterflies and to rampaging rats, to preachers and thieves, to riches and filth, this place is infected with the stains of blood anger and the fetor of corruption, and it is beyond redemption. He will not escort any child into such regions. Mike asked for a priest, but knowing he couldn’t have meant that, his son drove off and came back an hour later with his wife’s pastor, a dour Methodist and reformed evangelical, who asked Mike if he would pray with him. Mike said yes. He said yes to everything now, he had nothing left with which to understand what anyone asked of him or any way to gauge its sincerity or strength to resist, incapable of either endorsement or disdain. So as the reverend droned on, Mike simply curled into himself and closeted himself in a secret place, wrapped himself around the small blue light, liquid and luminescent, that he found there and talked directly to its fading glow, rapt and unaware of the hypocrisy trying to rouse him as anything more than another buzzing fly, as if by dying he were consigning away his right to be the central participant in this vigil. Like all such vigils, this one gave the Kavanaughs a chance to relocate muddy familial memories into the myths of a noble family history. Memories too revealing were recast in different plots, others were transduced into new anecdotes, flecked with the fading traces of what really happened, the actual subdued and enriched by the imaginary. Some too shameful to be borne were excised altogether. Over time the Kavanughs had rehearsed all these new and commuted memories until they melded into flawless performance and became the truth. The children that remained to Mike took turns sitting by his bed while the others and their spouses and their older children sat in the kitchen downstairs, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, sharing reminiscences about their father and the life they had lived on this farm and how hard things had been. Sarah remembered the time that Mike had fired off a couple of rounds over the cornfield to scare away the deer that came there in the early morning to eat the corn. She told how the sudden thunderous sound had frightened her and how Mike had heard her crying and gone up to her room and held her so very gently, saying that he was only trying to shoo away the deer and not to be afraid and that he would never again shoot off a gun before she was awake and without telling her. For the first time Sarah told her own children how their grandfather’s parents had died when he was only a baby and how he was put into an orphanage in Elmira, New York, where they were mean to him and from which he ran away when he was just ten. How he made his way here to Mercer County, hitching rides and working odd jobs. How, after he got here, he paid his own way, even though just a boy, and when he was old enough apprenticed as a machinist and fell in love and married Sarah’s mother. How he never spanked his daughter or even raised his voice to her. Jimmy and Hannah tell their stories too, some from then and a few from the last year. How in the county home, Mike would call out for Little Mike and how he saw things that weren’t there, lost children and a man with blood on his leg laughing at him. Hannah recalled how lost Mike was after Little Mike’s accident. This meandering conversation would go on through the night, circling and bending in on itself in smoky tendrils, rewriting itself in cursive characters of air just like the swallows Mike had watched in the barn, talk aroused on the prurience of its own words and the merging cadences of its several voices. In its final steps towards reconciliation, the rewriting would at last leave behind the pain that had first motivated it and it would be released from the secrets locked away in Michael Kavanaugh’s heart and his failing mind and body. By morning it had become an archangel announcing a new resurrection of shriven remembrances, robed in brilliant white shrouds woven and sewn in the deceits of the dying.
Rain began to fall just as the sun was rising, a fine mist at first, but then heavier and heavier yet, though altogether it remained a gentle rain. It rained all across Mercer County. It dimpled the dust in the road that ran in front of the old farm and rinsed the dust from the poison ivy and sumac along the road. There was no wind. Just silver-gray droplets, dancing on sidewalks and on the roofs of barns and on stone fences. The rain gathered in rills and rivulets and by late afternoon was washing gravel from the roads into yards and fields and was flooding pastures and gardens. It rained on the churchyards and the taverns just outside the borough limit. It splashed into the lakes left from the oldest strip mines, striking circles of ripples, concentric and perfect, intersecting myriad other perfect circles—the way the sounds of a choir of crystal bells would look, if sound could be seen. It rained on schoolyards and mill yards, on the town square and the county home, on gas stations and graveyards and all the graves of the departed and on Michael Kavanaugh’s grave. It soaked into the grass that covered him and into the roots of the grass and into the loam and clay that held up his casket and finally found the casket itself and him in it and bathed him in silver and washed away the lies of a lifetime, whispering new lies, lies radiant with promise, into his moldering ears.
JAMES CARPENTER began writing fiction after a long, eclectic career in business, education, and information technology. His stories have appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Fourteen Hills, and descant. His story, "Animal Story," won descant's Frank O'Connor prize for their best story of 2009.