The 80’s-model Chevrolet pickup rattles down the dirt road. I think those exact bumps have been there since I was in sixth grade, when we first moved out here. I hold Joshua tighter against me and let him suck on the tip of my pinky. His eyes start to droop shut again, and the suckling motions of his mouth begin to slow. I wish I had thought to grab his pacifier. But I don’t have any long fingernails anymore, anyway.
There’s a whole world of things I wish I could do instead of this. But what choice do I have? Where else could I go with Joshua? Last time, I went and moved in with Bernadette. And she’d be happy to have me again, I suppose. She’s so lonely.
But this isn’t like last time. I didn’t have any bruises last time. I won’t go and just wait there for him to come take me back, and I won’t put Bernadette through the confrontation. She hates confrontations.
Mom and Dad never liked Kevin. They always told me I couldn’t marry him. So when I didn’t, I laughed about how they got what they wanted. At the time, I told myself that Mom only hated him because Dad did, and Dad only hated him because the two of them were so very different.
Well, father of mine, maybe you two weren’t so different after all.
“Well,” says the man behind the wheel. He wipes the sweat from his forehead with an only slightly oily red rag, then tucks a wisp of white hair back up under his cowboy hat. For a couple of minutes I think he’s forgotten that he started a sentence.
“Well,” he begins again, “you reckon your mamma and your daddy are gonna be a mite surprised you’re comin’?”
I nod. “I suppose so.”
“Well,” he says, “how long you stayin’ out here, ya think?”
He nods. Catching the tone of my voice, he doesn’t press any farther. I feel a little bad about cutting him off like that. But I just can’t bear to open my mouth more than I absolutely need to right now. Kind of like when you’re really sick and you’re afraid you’re going to vomit, so you try not to talk or breathe or move or anything.
Actually, I think I just might vomit. Am I pregnant again? God, I hope not! I close my eyes and try to forget the image of endless fence posts, oak, and pine whizzing by the open truck window. I stick my head out and let the wind brush against it a bit.
The truck starts slowing down.
“This the place?” he asks. I delay a moment before opening my eyes.
The house is a beige wooden box set up on cinder blocks, with dark brown trim. Still no porch; just cinder blocks for steps.
“Yes sir, this is it.”
He slows and pulls into the driveway. I hear the familiar crunch of the white rocks shifting under the tires.
“Well, I figure I’ll just stop right here,” he says, with the door only a bit past the culvert. “I hope everything’s OK. I’ll wait here and make sure they’re home.”
“Thank you, kind sir,” I murmur. “The car’s here; they’re home.”
He opens his door and walks around to my door, which he opens, helping me down onto the rocks. I’m surprised to actually be thankful for his token gesture; I feel myself shake weakly against the firmness of his dark, wrinkled arm.
I thank him again and begin to walk toward the house. Cadence runs out from behind a tree and stands erect for a moment, then starts barking. I shout for him to be quiet, and he lies down again in the shade of the spreading oak.
I see a figure come out from the leaning barn that stands behind the house. Dad has some wooden furniture fragment clasped in his hands. As he recognizes me, one end drops, and it dangles from his right hand. I look at him, but make no gesture as I walk. After five seconds or so, he goes back into the shed.
The front door opens, and Mom winces at the bright sun. She raises a hand to her forehead, and I stop in my tracks and lock eyes with her. Her dishtowel falls to the grass beside the door.
“Oh my God,” Mom says. She comes down the steps and flies over to me in about three steps. One hand goes to the bruise on my face, and the other touches Joshua’s head. “What is this? A bruise? My Lord, what’s happened?” She embraces me for a moment, then turns her eyes down to Joshua. I immediately hold him out toward her, and she takes him.
“And is this my grandchild?” she asks. “I’ve waited a long while to see you, you beautiful little boy!” She strokes his sparse hair back and turns her back to the sun to shade his little eyes. “It tore me up that I never got to see your first one, Gabriella. It really did.”
I kiss him once on the head and turn away, walking back out toward the dirt road. The nice old man has already left. Pity; it’s a long way back to Carlson.
“Gabriella Mary Black!” comes Mom’s voice. “Where on God’s Green Earth are you goin’?”
“You come back here right now and have some lemonade with your mamma! Has the heat gotten to your brain?”
I shrug and turn back around to her.
“I figured it’d be easier this way,” I respond.
“You’re talkin’ nonsense,” says Mom. “Your brain’s all a mush. Come on inside and have something to drink before you drop dead. And just look at your clothes! How long have you been wearing that? I’ll have to dig you up somethin’ else to wear while I wash ’em.”
Our shoes clomp across the plywood floors, and I plop down on the old couch. I haven’t realized until now just how tired I am. I close my eyes and quickly forget how disgusted I’ve always been at the dog hair that seems practically woven into the couch’s coarse upholstery. My parents don’t even own an indoor dog. Never have. We got this piece-of-shit couch from some neighbors that moved away and left it with us years back. They had dogs out the wazoo; Cadence tore up a couple of them when they wandered over here.
Mom hands me Joshua again.
“Here, take him; I’ll get us some lemonade. I just made it.”
She returns quickly with two tall glasses. She hands me one, and the ice cubes click and clatter as I draw it to my lips. Mom takes hold of her plain wooden rocking chair with her free hand, pulling it close so she can sit facing me.
“You look like hell, baby,” she says. “What did you do to deserve that?”
I glare at her. “The same thing you always did.”
Mom straightens up a bit and looks at the floor.
“He hasn’t been like that for a while now,” she says quietly. “He’s startin’ to mellow with his old age, I guess.”
The back door opens, and I hear Dad’s boots clomping through the laundry room. He stops in the doorway and looks at me. His face is pink with heat, and there’s sawdust sticking to the sweat on his face and arms and in his hair. He didn’t see my bruises when I was walking up to the house. He sees them now. Well, some of them, anyway. Our eyes lock together in silence, and Mom looks down at the ice cubes swimming in her lemonade.
“Gabriella,” he says, “did he do that to you?”
“Yes, Dad,” I say.
He takes a step toward me, then stops. After a moment’s pause, he turns and walks quickly out of the house. The door slams behind him. A minute later, we hear his axe crashing into the logs out back. Mom and Dad haven’t used electric heaters for years. Too expensive. Instead, they burn wood in a big metal stove and mount a box fan over it. Out here, wood is free if you’re willing to cut it yourself.
“That’s what he does when he’s angry now,” says Mom. “The new minister really cares about folks; he’s been over here a few times, and I think it’s really had an effect on your father. But now we’ve got more firewood than we can use. I was callin’ friends over to come get it for free last winter. But there’s still a big pile stacked up back there.”
Mom asks me about Joshua’s eating and sleeping habits. We talk about the weather and television shows for a little while.
The chopping stops, and Dad comes back in. Without saying a word, he walks through the livingroom and into the bedroom. We hear the squeak of metal on metal, and our eyes meet. Mom and I place our half-empty glasses of lemonade down on the plywood, and I follow her over to the bedroom door with Joshua cradled in my left arm.
Dad has the gun cabinet open, and he’s sliding rounds into the clip of his Glock.
Mom rushes over and takes the empty Glock from its place on the top shelf, hiding it behind her back.
“You can’t do this, Ted,” she says. “You know you can’t do this.”
“You think I’m gonna let him do that to my daughter?” he asks sternly. His eyes are wild.
“Ted, you know I can’t have you going to jail. They’ll know it was you. You can’t do this.”
“Give me the gun, Liz,” he says, holding out his big open palm to her.
“Not till you start thinkin’ sense, I’m not. Do you wanna go to prison?”
“You gonna let him do that to your daughter?” he shouts.
“No,” says Mom, “I’m not. But I’m not gonna let you shoot him, either.”
“I’m not going back, Dad,” I hear myself say. “I’m never going back.”
“And what if he comes here lookin’ for ya?” Dad asks, looking at me over Mom’s head. “You expect me to let him take you?”
It takes another twenty minutes of coercion before the gun cabinet is finally closed. Dad wants to get the police on him at least, but I won’t let him; I tell him us leaving is punishment enough. So he just calls him instead. I expect him to swear at Kevin for about half an hour. But he doesn’t.
“Kevin,” he says, “now you listen and you listen good. You know who this is. My little girl ain’t with you no more. And if you come ’round here lookin’ for her, I’ll shoot ya right in the head. No, I’ll shoot ya in the gut and sick Cadence on ya. I’ll let him eat ya from the stomach out. And don’t you think I won’t.”
Dad hangs up the phone and turns to me. He smiles.
“I really don’t care whether he believes me or not. If he does, then he’ll stay away. If he don’t, then I get to shoot ’im.”
Dad looks down at Joshua’s indigo eyes.
“Well, now. He’s a good-lookin’ little fella, ain’t he?”
“He has his grandpa’s nose,” says Mom.
“Now, how can you tell a thing like that so early on? All babies have the same nose at first. Like them eyes; they ain’t gonna stay blue. That’s just how babies are.”
“Go wash up, Ted,” says Mom. “Then you can sit down on the couch and hold him for a bit while we make dinner.”
Dad quickly walks to the deep plastic sink in the laundry room.
“It’s just as well I didn’t take off to shoot ’im,” comes his voice over the sound of water. “There’s a Cowboys game tonight.”
“Are you hungry?” Mom asks as she walks over to the fridge.
“Well, how’s mashed potatoes sound?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Dad walks into the livingroom and sits down on the dog-hair couch. He holds up his big palms.
“Alright, bring him to me!”
I lay Joshua down tenderly in the rough meaty bowl of Dad’s hands.
Well, would you look at that! Yeah, he’s got his grandpa’s nose. Plain as day.