By Spence Wise
Featured Image: “Poppy Fields near Argenteuil” by Claude Monet
We’re on our way to meet Charlene’s family for the first time, listening to Townes Van Zandt in the car, and Charlene’s saying, “‘Pancho and Lefty’ is me and my Daddy’s song,” when I suddenly smell fire. All along Highway 33, the smell of wood burning. She laughs. “Don’t laugh,” I say, “might be a forest fire.” She says, “First time south of the Mason-Dixon, and now you’re Woodsy Owl.”
“I feel vigilant,” I tell her, gripping the wheel tight with both hands, as we come over a hill and, on the horizon, points of orange flames burst from the tree line. “What the hell is that?” I say. “Those are laurel oaks. Those are pitch pines,” she says. “Not the damn trees,” I say. “The fire. We got to call your parents, tell them it’s time to evacuate. We got to get the hell out of Georgia.” She puts one hand on my knee and points to the parallel rows in the woods along- side the road, explains how the fire is burning in even rows, how it’s controlled. “Doesn’t look controlled,” I tell her. “Looks way the hell out of control.” Nacreous black smoke rises above the pines. She says her parents live about ten miles from here. “Correction,” I say. “Used to live. It’s all burned. You can’t go home again. Home is a marshmellow.” “Mallow,” she says. “If you’re talking about the spongy confection that you northerners eat two times a year when you go camping—that’s a marshmallow.”
“No way,” I say. “It’s mellow as in ‘don’t harsh my mellow.’”
“You think I’m just some country rube.”
“Your parents probably think I wear a yarmulke, right?”
When we get to Charlene’s house in Maclay, Georgia, the sun is fading behind the red barn like the head of a match, smoke curling out of the chimney, and the wisteria is blooming purple. We’d left Brooklyn three days earlier and now I’m walking on cramped, uneasy legs to meet her father, Eban, who’s wearing Carhartt overalls and a plaid shirt and has the handshake of a grizzly bear.
After the introductions, he says, “We got a few hours before supper. Come see my cows, Dean.”
It’s just not a sentence you hear in Borough Park. Come stand guard while I hotwire this car; why don’t we huff paint anymore; yeshiva isn’t good enough for your son, he has to be a pianist too? But never: come see my cows. Over at the barn Eban pulls open the sliding door and barn cats scatter in every direction. Inside there is this machine that swivels around like a lazy susan. The cows walk down a ramp toward Charlene’s younger brother, Ted, who’s wearing a Falcons cap. “He’s only thirteen,” Charlene says, and playfully knees her little brother. She’s looser here. The cows are moving in backwards to the lazy susan thing to get milked. Suddenly Charlene and her mother are gone to pasture and I realize I’m alone with her father. I’d learned a few things living with Charlene in Brooklyn where she’s a New York Teaching Fellow, like I learned that hay is made out of alfalfa or grass or clover. This astounds me. Frankly I thought hay was made of hay, that it was a legitimate plant one grows. Charlene’s Daddy, as she creepily calls him, strikes me as the sort of man who can go ungodly stretches of time without speaking, so I feel obligated to talk. Some of the cows don’t have tails, so I say to her father: “Are those the females?”
“Are who the females?” He’s got a real peaceful face.
“The ones with no tails,” I say.
He goes bug-eyed for a moment, reddens in embarrassment, then slaps me on the back. “You’re pulling my leg, right?”
I tell him yes, of course. He wipes his eyes clear with the back of a dirty finger, and explains what he’d done was experiment with tying tight bands on the cows’ tails early on in their lives, so their tails just withered and fell off in about seven days or so, and that way they don’t get caught in the machine.
My nausea somehow passes for intense concentration. “You’re really interested in this stuff,” he says.
Eban leads me over to the milking station and this is the closest I’ve ever been to a cow, though I came close and blew it once before. At my eighth- grade field trip to Old Sturbridge Farm I snuck off with Betsy Breitman, the first and last Jew I ever dated, and while everyone else went to the barn to watch how milk gets made and butter churned, we snuck off to the cider mill where Betsy tried to crush my arm in the wooden screw press. We filled our pockets from the barrels of Baldwins and Roxbury Russets; then dug our hands, right up to our elbows into the apple pomace sitting in uncovered buckets: we touched the silty, rich, sticky stuff—made up of ground skin and seed and flesh, before it’d been pressed to cider. We were both Brooklyn kids and we’d seen apples but not ground up like this. We picked it up, smelled, tasted, sweet then tannic, smeared it like war paint on each other’s faces. Then I found a hand saw hanging on the wall and with a saw tooth drew a drop of blood from her finger, a drop that just hung there, quivering and bright, and once I had done the same with my finger, we pressed them tight together, and in all that excitement we completely forgot to make out.
Now I can hear the cows lowing restless. Charlene and her mother return. Ted is down on his knees preparing the cows to be milked and that’s when Eban says, “Dean, why don’t you give it a try.” In my head I’m thinking there’s no way I can do this, but Charlene is right there. Her mouth draws a hard line. I say, “No thanks,” but then I hear, through Charlene’s closed lips, a soft murmur of disappointment, or else irritation. The instant I hear this I know I am moments away from having cow tits in my hands.
Ted hands me a clean rag and a tin bucket filled with warm water and a little bleach, and shows me how to do it. Charlene’s eyes are wide, unblinking. Eban puts his arm around her shoulders. The cow jostles about, restless on the platform, her coat has a heavy scent. She turns and looks back at me with her big bug-eyes, her wondering eyes. This thing before me looks like some swollen veiny balloon. Reaching out, I wipe it and through the worn rag I feel its blood just below the skin. It is warm to my touch, a hot aching thing.
At dinner we say grace, all of us holding hands. Her father sits there so fiercely quiet and peaceful, erect and rigid, and without thinking about it, I follow his comportment. At times we spontaneously turn toward each other and exchange these moronic expressions. Charlene asks for my plate to serve me some Angus steaks, I don’t know what that is but it’s fresh, I know it’s fresh because it comes from their land. It was a part of them. And I think this is the first time I’ve eaten a vegetable that I’d seen picked off the vine. When I taste the collard greens, the mother chirps, “You like ‘em?” as though I were her child using the toilet for the first time. Charlene tells me her mother will give her the recipe if I love it that much. I jump in here, tell them how my grandmother used to intentionally withhold one key ingredient from her chicken soup recipe, driving the women in my family nuts, a different ingredient each time. They all just look at me as if to say, Your grandmother sounds awful. After a brief silence, Eban lifts his single malt and says to me, “Shalom. It’s great to have you here. Great to finally meet you.” They all take turns saying Shalom.
“Do you read much Torah?” the mother asks, her eyes shifting between her
daughter and her husband. When I’m not having sex with your daughter, yes, I’m reading much Torah. Instead I say: “To tell you the truth, my family is not really religious. Charlene is probably more Jewish than me.” “Charlene is not….” the mother starts to say, looks at her husband, then settles for a “Well,” that drops like a potato sack on the table. This is followed by unnecessary throat clearing and the sound of forks clinking against the porcelain plates. They begin to talk amongst themselves: Ted has blood in his eye from being hoofed in the face a week ago but it’s almost healed; Charlene is dying to be assigned to a Special Ed. class in Bed-Stuy next year; mother has taken up needlepoint; Eban insists there’s no way state legislature can outlaw tail docking. I down another glass of wine, sit back with a full belly after the last gulp has slid down my throat and think how different this is: no jealousy, no cursing, no farting, no cutting words. They want to watch home videos later; they want to play cards. The mother turns to me: “Does your religion allow gambling?”
Later that night, I cannot sleep with the animals going berserk. Giant insects beat their wings against the thick, humid air. Who can sleep with this racket? Beside me, across the room, I can hear her brother, Ted, snoring away, the deep peaceful sleep of country life. I could have carried his bed out to the barn and he wouldn’t have woken up. Charlene and I have been forbidden from sleeping together so I’m sharing a room with her kid brother. The floor is cold on my bare feet when I stand up, go to the door, turn the knob slowly, and watch my shadow lengthen across the hallway. Down the hall, I pass Charlene’s room and quietly push open the door. In the light of the moon, I can see the silhouette of her body, the outline of her nightgown. On my tiptoes I lean in and freeze when she stirs. While she rolls over I hear the soft rustling of the sheets. She raises her arms over her head. Above her is a canopy bed, four pleated panels of chiffon curtains. Above the bureau against the far wall is an arabesque mirror, curved and bodacious, and slung over its shoulder is a blue sash with the words done in gold leaf: Miss Georgia Peanut Festival 1988. And there’s a Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy poster on the closet door. All this time living with the Peanut Queen and I didn’t even know. My eyes go to her sleeping form. What else don’t I know? How did she win the pageant? Did she tap? Beatbox? What was her talent? More importantly does she still have the dress?
And then she rolls toward me. I can see the big banana curls frame her face,
stacked like perfectly overlapping shingles. It’s her real hair too. Not like the orthodox wigs my mother wears to cover her sacramental baldness. Only the best wigs, my father was proud of saying. None of the cheap synthetic ones with cowlicks or mesh caps, none of those wigs 40% off on account of storage smell. Once, as a kid, I saw through the crack of the bedroom door my mother putting on her wig before dinner, and I know I should not have looked, but I stood there frozen. Through the crack of the door, I watched her carefully flip the wig inside out and stretch the lace cap over her head, pink and flaking and wrinkled: her true self. Inside me something stirred. It was ugly and I hated myself for thinking so. Then I watched her pull the wig into place, touch her temples to make sure it wasn’t crooked. She bobby-pinned the hair behind her ears, checked the mirror for flyaways, and before she could turn around I was running down the hall.
Closing the door to Charlene’s bedroom, I sneak back out to the moonlit hallway, the wood creaking and groaning. I just feel the weight of my feet on this old cherry wood that Charlene’s granddad hauled out of the woods half a century ago, and I am almost to my room when I hear a voice from the ground floor: “Come down if you can’t sleep.”
I find Eban downstairs in the kitchen drinking coffee. That’s what a man does. Drinks coffee at midnight out on his porch overlooking a farm. Tomorrow’s not a big day because every day is big, the same, and gorgeous.
He gives me a mug of chicory coffee and we go out onto the porch and sit in rocking chairs. It’s midnight and the noise from the insects makes a sound like a heartbeat, like the night itself has a steady pulse. The steaming mug is right below his chin, snuggled up. “Bitter isn’t it,” he says, once I’ve taken a sip and winced. “It can be a whole lot worse,” he says, “my daddy used to drink trucker sludge—bacon grease and coffee grinds. That kind of bitter is barely tolerable. Matched his personality, too.” He gives a short laugh, sips his coffee, looks out over the farm. “Barely tolerable.”
I tell him since I’ve never been out to the country before, never really left the city, sleeping out here is going to be an ordeal. He laughs at that, repeats the word “ordeal” as though I have no business using it.
“You haven’t told me anything about your parents,” he says. “Your parents alive?”
“Do mothers ever die?” I joke and he sips his coffee, keeps looking straight ahead into the night.
“Mine did,” he says, calmly. But he doesn’t get angry. He sits there gently rocking with an Old Testament dignity. His cologne smells like horse leather. I want to burrow my head in his shoulder and sniff him forever.
“Well, what are your folks like?” he asks.
I thought of my father and mother driving out to see my grandparents in Yonkers for Passover. Whole ride my mother was farting, driving and farting, apologizing by saying, “It’s perfectly natural,” and my father got his nose bleeds—three of them in fact. Two there, one on the way back, saying, “It is too dry, Hilda, you run the heater and it dries me out.” “Stop picking!” my mother screamed. We pulled over at a rest stop so my dad could get some paper towels for his nose. We all went to the bathroom and when we returned, immediately when my mother closed the door, she farted again. My father said, “You wait to get back into the car to do that?” My mother says it only now arrived. Please, I tell them, shut up both of you. Everyone shut up.
“Nice folks?” Eban asks.
“Very nice,” I tell him, and he says he hopes to meet them someday. “You’ll meet them,” I say.
“That’d be great. We’d love to have them down.”
I know my parents would never accept that invitation; they wouldn’t last five minutes here. I ignore my father’s warning in my head: “99% of relationships don’t work out.”
I lean back in the wicker chair, just picturing myself on a tractor, a nice straw hat, you need a hat in these parts, saying things like “these parts,” and Van Zandt’s in my head singing about skin like iron, breath as hard as kerosene and I know he’s talking about me. I do pull-ups in the barn, write my children’s birthdays in my Bible, capitalize God, and when wisteria weeps its incense I don’t marvel at it: I plow the fields on my tractor, and do things out of kindness I suppose.
Spencer Wise is the author of The Emperor of Shoes (HarperCollins/Hanover Square Press). His work can be found in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, and The Literary Review. He has won prize contests from Narrative magazine and Gulf Coast, and he has been awarded residencies and fellowships to the Vermont Writer Studio and Ragdale. Wise is an assistant professor of creative writing at Augusta University.
Originally appeared in NOR 11.