The following excerpt appears in Peery’s new novel, What the Thunder Said. Copyright 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. Available this spring wherever books are sold.
YES, SHE KNEW THEM. They were her grown sons Sam and William and she loved them dearly but she wished they wouldn’t loom over the bed to ask her did she. Wished they wouldn’t block the patch of sunlight that stole across the floor. If they stood aside, and if the fog would lift, the view would show the gray Pacific, and she wanted to regard the far edge of the continent, the place she’d come to rest, having gone as far as she could go. She tried to nod so they could know her answer, the part of it she wanted them to see.
A breeze soughed through the open window. It was late afternoon. The sheets were snowy, freshly changed. The nurse had spread a clean sheepskin beneath her. In the bedside chair sat her husband of thirty years, stricken by her fast decline but trying not to show it. Del worked the Sunday crossword, stuck on a word he’d given clues for at least twice. Soon enough, as if she’d spoken it aloud, he would supply the word himself, talking either to keep her in his world or keep himself in hers.
The chart clipped to the footboard of the bed her body lay in gave her name as Marlene Delaney, but her history was invisible, and she had long ago determined she would keep it so. No deathbed confession; she had heard one once—her mother’s—and the keeping of it from her sister was a part of what had driven her from home. For her sons, there would be none of that. Even if she had the breath or strength to speak, she would keep her silence to the end; it was the price for bartering her old life for the new.
Long before she felt the mass under her ribs, she’d known its source, its name, how long it had been hidden in her. She’d married young, her first as near a shotgun wedding as her pride allowed. There she was like yesterday before the magistrate, wearing the horrid dress, a limp sack of a flowered thing she’d given up trying to belt over her swollen middle, standing between her father in his black Sunday coat too big for him and her lank boy-husband Audie with the smear of dried soapsuds behind his ear. He was a hapless hired boy she’d lain with only once. Simple figuring told her he was the baby’s father, and not the man who had come after, a man she wished she didn’t want but couldn’t make herself stop wanting.
That one had left without so much as a goodbye. She’d walked over to his home place to seek him out and found the clapboard house abandoned, dusty curtains waving out the open window. When she set a match to them, the tattered cotton went up like the torch she’d borne for him. Later, even as she stood on the puncheon floorboards of the courthouse, the magistrate’s sour breath making her gorge rise as he said the words love, honor, and obey, binding Mary Etta Spoon to Audubon Jay Kipp, she vowed she would go after Becker Birdsall, force him to believe the child was his and make good on his promise.
The child, Georgette, was five months old when she made her getaway. She packed a few things in a flour sack—her sister had made off with their straw suitcase—and waited until the men had gone out to a far field, and then she left on foot. Even as she walked, she puzzled at the bundled presence in her arms. Why had she not left the child behind? The answer came quickly enough: the men would be away for hours; she didn’t want Georgette to cry. No love for the infant had yet crept into her heart—only a weary sense of duty—but she feared something she left behind would draw her back.
Keeping to back roads, she made it to the Kansas farmhouse where her sister worked. She remembered hunger, heat, the drone of locusts, the open screen door and the smell of bacon wafting out. Mackie wouldn’t let her in, and this, she knew, was just. An eye for an eye; her sister loved the boy who was now her husband, and she, Etta the Bad, had known this from the start. Worse, maybe, she’d told her sister a truth she didn’t want to hear.
In those times most travelers were good to each other, supplying blankets, BC powders, sympathy, advice, a sack of nickel hamburgers from a roadside stand. Once, when the baby bit her breast so hard she cried, an Arkie granny woman from the cotton fields predicted that her milk was drying up, and it was so. But before long she had a feeding bottle with a big black rubber nipple and cow’s milk almost anywhere she asked.
Walking, she practiced reasons to be on the road. A sailor husband out in San Diego. A cousin in San Bernardino. A lost pocketbook. Good lies, but no one pried. She gave her name as Marlene Smith, the first name pronounced just like the actress’s. Smith, she joked, was said the usual way.
She could have guessed Audie would try to follow her, but the first time she saw her father’s Model A as it juddered past with Audie behind the wheel, she nearly knocked over the bench where she was sitting with a family who shared their lunch. She had been reaching under the picnic table for an orange that had rolled there and when she swung back up she saw the car. Audie hadn’t seen her, but she knew he’d either read her mind or found Becker’s address in Manitou jotted on a scrap and knew where she was bound. At the next crossroads she headed north.
Her outstretched thumb earned her a ride as far as Las Animas, Colorado. Begging milk from a filling station market, one thing leading to another, she had taken up with Frank and Nita Richard. Pulling a shiny new silver trailer behind a green Hudson, they were on their way to the Garden of the Gods, near Manitou. College teachers from Baton Rouge, long married, carefree, with no trace of the wind-bitten doggedness of the others who fled the plains, Frank and Nita laughed a lot—so many things were just outrageous—and every evening they drank Scotch whiskey from crystal tumblers with initials etched into the glass. They wore rolled dungarees and flannel shirts and saddle oxfords. A pair of glasses perched on Nita’s nose. Frank smoked a pipe.
They said educated things in foreign languages, calling their trip das Wunderjahr. They traveled with boxes full of books. Frank was writing one himself, he said, and every day he’d lug out a big black Royal and set it on a card table under the trees. The keys clacked steadily, the table shook, and pages piled up beside the typewriter, weighted with a rock. At night they cleared the table and played cards.
To Frank and Nita it was a given that she was running from a man. Past that, she hadn’t had to say much. She made up a tale about a bull-riding uncle she was meeting out in Winnemucca. The Nevada town’s name rolled off her tongue; she wasn’t sure exactly where it was. “Uncle Pug is after me to join the rodeo,” she’d said.
“How fascinating that would be,” said Nita, but Etta wasn’t sure Nita really meant it. Sometimes the Richards looked at her as if the things she said were strange. Their quickness often made her shy, so she took care to be helpful, quiet, good, to laugh when they said something was outrageous, to mind her p’s and q’s. Now, she knew they must have seen her as a crazy, lying, Okie girl trying to make herself bigger than she was, and the memory of the airs she put on could make her wince. But mostly the couple had been kind.
They delighted in Georgette, singing lullabies she hadn’t thought to sing, familiar songs she’d been too numb to recollect as she tended the baby in a fog of duty, and the baby yearned toward them, resting her head against their shoulders. Nita held the child for hours on end, crooning and making silly noises. Frank was a baby-loving man, extravagant in his affection. Darling bitty, he would call the child. One afternoon when Etta was sitting on a blanket in the sun, the baby in her lap, Frank picked a dandelion and in a courtly gesture he bowed low to present it to Georgette. The baby grasped it by the stem and slowly brought the flower to her nose. Frank was charmed. He snapped their picture with his Leica. “You moved,” he said to Etta, “but I think I caught the bitty.”
In the Garden of the Gods they camped in a pine forest. The air was thin and dry, the park immense and beautiful, spreading out over the countryside of red ochre sandstone rising in spires and pillars, craggy boulders balanced on thin stems, stern marvels of a palisaded wonderland that made her think of the red walls of Jericho, a thought she pushed away for the way it reminded her of her father’s Old Testament religion. Sunlight struck the juts and angles of the rocks so they appeared to change each time she looked at them, their otherworldly shadows shifting on the valley floor. Pike’s Peak hulked in the distance. From the doorway of the tent her new friends set up for her beside the trailer she could see its summit.
Frank and Nita planned to stay until the first snow fell, and Etta was so enchanted by them that she almost forgot her plan to seek out Becker. She was off him anyway, enough time had passed for her to understand she’d been a fool. Instead, she began to spin daydreams of going back to Baton Rouge with them. They could be a happy family, a society of three, talking of books and politics and playing cards to all hours of the night, drinking highballs from etched crystal. They would all write books.
When the Model A passed by again, she had been walking down the path from the pit toilet at the trailhead. Although she wasn’t in the line of sight, she ducked into a stand of spruce. Audie was bent over the wheel and peering straight ahead, turtle-eyed and sleepy. She wondered if it was chance that led him to her or if someone had seen her—maybe as she’d begged the milk, the scene she’d made before the Richards came to her rescue.
“You look as if you’d seen a ghost,” Nita said when Etta returned to camp. She was dealing a hand of cards at the fold-down table under the awning. “Gin, anyone?” Nita laughed her hearty laugh and ice cubes chinked so loudly that Etta feared the noise would wake Georgette, sleeping in her apple crate in the tent beside the trailer.
“I’m sick,” she said, the lie springing to her tongue. What if he’d stopped around the bend, was waiting for nightfall to make his ambush?
She jerked her head toward the privy trail she’d just come down. “Watch the baby, will you?”
Frank’s gaze sought Nita’s, and she wondered if they doubted her story about feeling ill. She’d lied enough to know when people suspected untruth—that eye-catch was a certain sign—but just now she couldn’t care.
Out of their sight, she threaded her way through the trees, up a sandstone outcrop that overlooked a bend in the road near Balance Rock, and there was the car, parked in a turn-out. Audie slouched in the seat, his beat-up Stetson covering his face. She didn’t know if he was catnapping or if he meant to sleep for the night, but she couldn’t trust him either way and so she set up watch, wedging herself among the rocks and pulling her skirt over her knees.
Wood smoke drifted past, and with it the smells of cooking from other campsites. The sun slipped behind the ridge and darkness fell. The wind was cold. In the distance, the baby cried, then quieted. A sudden fear rose in her that the Richards would worry, would come to check on her, and so she hurried to the campsite to show herself.
“Are you all right?” Frank asked when she appeared.
“No,” she told them, needlessly whispering. She made a show of gripping at her belly.
“Marlene, we’re worried about you,” he began, “we think you ought to tell us what you’re….”
“Don’t,” she said. Her answer sounded harsh and so she softened her voice. “Don’t worry. It’s just something I ate.” She told them she’d feel better if she spent the night close to the privy.
Nita shook her head, then pressed a woolen army blanket on her. “Take this, then.”
She was glad for the blanket. It was cold in the woods, dark among the trees behind the privy. She was afraid of bears and rattlesnakes and mountain lions, and her heart raced at the slightest rustle in the underbrush, but by the gleam of moonlight on the Ford’s fender she was able to keep Audie and the car in view. In the morning, when the coast was clear, she would go down. She would be much improved although still weak. They would take up as before. She would stop her needless lying, level with her friends.
The sound of a car engine grumbling to life woke her early, as the sun was glinting off the ridge, and she peered out from her hiding place to see the Ford making a turn to head back down the mountain. Scrambling through the forest, she made it to the campsite’s clearing in time to see Audie knocking at the trailer door. He’d taken off his hat and she noticed how long his hair had grown, longer now than the rawhide tie he gathered it into.
Frank stepped out under the awning. In the doorway behind him, Nita cradled the baby. Audie talked to Frank a while, then pointed down the road, seeming to ask a question. Frank shook his head. Nita shook hers, too, hefting the baby to her shoulder so the child faced the inside of the trailer. When Audie brought out a piece of paper, she knew it was one of the pencil drawings he had made of her during the suffocating months they spent as man and wife, when his longing for her seemed more stifling than the heat. Both looked at the drawing and then shook their heads, and with relief and gratitude she understood her friends were lying for her. Nita jiggled the baby in a protective way, drawing up the swaddling blanket as if the child were cold. She vanished into the trailer’s interior. Again Frank shook his head.
It would have been so easy, after the car had trundled down the mountain road, for her to step into the clearing. But she couldn’t move. The lies she’d told seemed to close in on her, jumbled up and teetering like rocks about to fall, too many to sort out, too many questions to remember or to count, too many to make sense of and she was lost inside them, and so she turned away, working her way through the trees toward the road.
She walked all day. It had to be a sin to feel so light, so free, released, but the sin of it was not that she felt free, but that to turn away had been so easy. She knew that what she’d done meant something she could not take back. She knew that there was no forgiveness for it. But there she was in the middle of doing it. Wrong as it was, she determined she would do it, and the solitary power of her resolve seemed to burst in her brain like sparks. It recalled to her the girl she’d been before she had been trapped. The daredevil who walked around a silo rim, wind in her hair, who raced a coal-black horse to town alone and made it back before they missed her and they never the wiser, the girl whose will could not be bent, whose spirit wouldn’t break. No one could make her do a thing she didn’t want to do. Not her father and not Audie, not Frank or Nita or the baby. Nothing could change her mind, not guilt or sense, not even love.
The road wound down the mountainside toward Manitou. By dusk she’d nearly reached the outskirts. A steady stream of cars went by, park visitors, sightseers, but she kept well back from the road unless a hairpin turn took up the road-cut and then she waited in the brush until she saw her chance. On the steep downhill slopes, she had the sense of hurtling toward the future stretching out before her, shining like the lights of town below.
She reassured herself of her clean break. She’d given a false name; they couldn’t track her. She’d made no mention of her home, of her father or her sister, had left no token of herself that they could use to find her. When she recalled the Leica and the picture Frank had snapped, it was this small thing that slowed her steps. Not because it was a clue, a sign, or evidence, but because she’d seen the picture in her mind as he had taken it, and now she couldn’t seem to get it out. There was the baby on her lap, the dandelion wilting in her hand. What charmed them then was what had stopped her now—the way Georgette had taken the flower, received it gravely, with the surest hand, seeming to understand it was a tribute, accepting it with solemn grace. That meant something. What? Power, will, a soul? She didn’t know, but something.
She began to walk again, but her steps had become heavy, and she found she was resisting the momentum that pulled her downhill. She didn’t want the baby, but yet she did. What kind of selfishness was that? Not to want a child but yet to balk at her loving someone else? Was it jealousy she felt, the stir of mother-love? She didn’t know that either.
The road had leveled off and she walked out onto the shoulder and stood out in the open for a while. To rest, she told herself, but then longing settled like an ache deep in her bones, a simple longing for the child’s flesh, for the way, setting her feet against Etta’s belly and grasping her fingers, Georgette would pull up to a stand, all will and all determination stiffening her body as she squealed the thrill of her achievement. Even now, forty years later, she could feel the baby’s grip around her thumbs.
Step after step she took away and down the mountain told her she would soon turn back, would begin to make her way back up, but still she couldn’t make herself stop walking. Any minute, any minute she would turn, go back and finish what she’d started, make her excuses and start fresh, begin her life, one different from the one she had imagined, but livable.
It was ridiculous, the kind of thing her superstitious sister might have done, but she sought a sign, a trigger. A falling leaf, a scuttling mouse, a rustle from the pines, something to mark the moment, urge her back, something to release her from the great spell of herself. When the sweep of headlights from a car coming around the bend toward her lit the road, habit made her crouch behind a boulder while her heart beat wildly but with joy at knowing what she wanted and for knowing, for the first time, that her choice was right, and more, that it was good.
It was only after the car sped past her hiding place that she saw it was the Hudson, packed to the roof, the silver trailer coming on behind.
On the chance they would come looking for her where she told them she was headed, she went to Winnemucca and took work as a hotel maid. A year went by and then another. No one came. Often she thought of writing them in Baton Rouge, but the telephone book had no listing for a Frank and Nita Richard. And even if it had, what would she say? That she’d changed her mind, she didn’t mean it, it was all a big misunderstanding? By the time she met Del, another exile, a South Dakota boy fleeing the plains, in one word, gone, she had erased her past.
“Marlene,” he was saying now, his voice hesitant, uncertain, on the cusp of his desire, as if he didn’t know whether to try to speak her name to bring her back or to release her. His crossword puzzle was finished; the folded newspaper lay on the tray beside her water pitcher. It was coming on dusk. He alone was in the room with her, Sam and William having left while she was drifting. At her unspoken question about the boys, he said, “They went out for a bite to eat. They won’t be long.”
How could she have foreseen, as she continued down the mountain road telling herself the child was better off without a mother who could walk away, that the willfulness that wrecked her girlhood would depart and she would live a placid life, unable to summon even the ghost of the reckless yearning that once drove her? That she would be happy, that she would wear rolled dungarees and flannel shirts and glasses, would settle near an ocean where water in absurd abundance rolled against the shore, causing her to wonder if she’d just imagined dust and drought, the dirty years she’d lived through. That she would own books, tall shelves of them she came to love like friends, and that once she would even try to write one, giving up when shadows seemed always to fall across the sunny stories she set out to tell. That she would have two sons, the leisure to spend days at the beach with them, smiling while they threw their bodies into the breakers, the boys exuberant when she joined them in the vast, mind-numbing roar, all of them emerging sunburned and salt-crusted, clean.
Times when her desire to find her daughter haunted her, she willed the want away. Vanity of vanities, she heard her father’s voice. It would be selfish vanity to barge into her life, to upset things, to prod old scars, should there be any. Was it wrong to hope they’d lied to her, had in a backwards way returned the favor, telling her that she was only theirs? What if her lost child was happy, was at peace the way her sister was in her illusion, steadfast in her adoration of the man she believed to be her father? She would make no attempts, would do no further harm. If she had had to play with fate, let her have done it once and then no more.
She must have twisted in the bed, for Del was straightening the sheets. Soon her sons would come into the room, smelling of salt air and the sea, to hover, to ask her did she really want the window open, wasn’t she too chilly? At Del’s gesture—he understood she couldn’t bear a stillness in the air—they would agree to leave it open for the breeze. Soon, in their need for comfort, in their belief a word from her could ease their grief, the boys would hover over her to ask again if she knew them. Behind this question, she understood, was the ache to hear again the answer to a deeper question: Did you love me? If she could pit her will against her strength a final time, she’d try to nod. She’d tell them yes as often as they needed. And if somewhere another voice was asking, she would send the answer out again, again, and hope the air would hold her message, pray, beyond deserving, it was heard.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.