Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Nothing seemed real to her anymore. Life was a blur. She tried to see it in fine detail — her children running in the yard, the lines of their log cabin, her husband’s tall frame emerging from the woods with his chain saw — but the edges were obscured by a cloud of mayflies or some trick of sunlight. It gave her headaches, and she retreated to alcohol, which at least provided an explanation for the blurriness.
Sitting on her front porch in the last days of summer, she tried to pull her world back into crisp focus, telling herself, Puppy digging in the garden; son needs a band-aid; daughter could use help chasing butterflies. But she had no energy — or, rather, only enough to open a bottle of red wine and pour herself a glass: no stemware that summer, just an old jelly jar with a chipped rim that caught on her lip, not quite cutting it.
She poured glass after glass sitting there in the bright sunlight, trying to feel her motherhood pulsing somewhere in her heart. The reason for her lethargy could have been that her father had died that Memorial Day; that she’d held his feet in the intensive-care unit as the morphine took over and they pulled out the respirator; that she’d watched him take his last three breaths, then kissed his flaccid lips and gone home. Or it could have been that two weeks later her dog had been shot and killed by a neighbor with a drug problem.
A friend at her father’s funeral had warned her, “When grief comes, ride it like a wave, like a childbirth contraction, even though it might feel like it’s pulling you down to the bottom. If you don’t, you’ll pay the price later. And don’t expect anyone to do it for you.”
She hadn’t expected anyone to do it for her. She had been a master rider of labor pains when giving birth to her two children — without drugs. She found value in pain and was against medication as a rule; she was stubborn that way. But her friend hadn’t told her that the ones who can’t do the grieving for you are the ones who will make the grieving close to impossible.
At first she had been going along at a good clip, handling well her father’s death and the loss of her dog, reading books on grief each morning before the children got up, with their summer expectations of swimming and biking and ball-playing. She had been writing in her journal, something she hadn’t done in years. She cooked the family’s favorite meals, baked cakes for birthdays, threw a party with pony rides. She made love to her husband and kept the laundry pile down. She chose to cry at night, after everyone was in bed, sitting outside under the stars, wrapped in blankets. And when all of them were busy with their own lives in a way that made her seem almost obsolete — as a mother should seem if she is doing her job well — she rode her horse into the woods alone, something she had always been too scared to do before.
She rode to Murray Lake and let the horse graze in the pine grass while she took off her sweaty clothes and swam naked in the jade mountain water. Then she urged him up long hills — he had a tendency to run too fast on the flats — and at the top, when he was tired and wanting to stop, she gave him some rein and a hopeful squeeze with her thighs so that he might go into a gallop. She liked speed, but not so much that it would carry her away altogether. In the rush of wind over her wet hair and the tingle of lake water on her arms, she believed in herself. And every time she and the horse made their triumphant walk back to the barn, she carried that feeling home with her.
She didn’t tell anyone about the rides, because she couldn’t afford to have anyone tell her that she shouldn’t be galloping alone in the woods — that she could get thrown and be left to die under the wide expanse of the Montana sky. So she’d come into the house with a tempered smile and take a shower and fall back into her role as purveyor of domestic bliss. And it was working — all of it — until she concluded that her husband was very likely having sex with another woman. That’s when she lost her energy and her sense of motherhood and all the outlines in her world went hazy and she started to drink the summer away.
© Kelly Povo
It was fire season. The days burned with sun and the promise of smoke, and heat lightning cracked horizontally across the sky at night, but there had been no fires yet. Every day she prayed for someone to drop a cigarette in the woods and give her an excuse to stay inside with the windows closed and the kids watching television. Every day her children came into her bedroom wearing shorts, bringing the sun with them, and showed off their just-brushed teeth and told her of their plans. Every day she slept later and later, letting the puppy cry in his kennel, letting her husband creep off to work without a goodbye.
She didn’t tell anyone about her husband’s indiscretions. All the evidence she had was his neglect, which she quietly marked, and his acute attention to something else — something he had let invade their home in quickly ended phone calls, odd new aromas, long workdays, impatient lovemaking. She was stunned, like a bird that has flown into a windowpane and lies in the grass, not sure if it’s able to fly again.
At the end of August, while she was sitting on the front porch and her family was inside eating TV dinners, she exhaled and thought of her father’s last breath, and the exhale persisted, hot and long, until she was empty. And in her emptiness, she felt strangely full, and she stayed there. When the urge to inhale came, she pushed hard against it with her diaphragm, lingering in the place she had been warned about: the bottom, beneath the waves.
She would have stayed there, but something convulsed inside her, and she gasped for air.
She picked up her jar of red wine, walked ten paces into the front yard, and turned. It was a good cabin, with a wraparound porch and a perennial garden surrounded by a stone wall she had built with her husband when she was pregnant with their daughter, now eight. She looked at the pergola burgeoning with honeysuckle and clematis; at the rare perennials she had brought home in wet newspaper from all over the United States, and even once from England; at the gate they had milled and fashioned from the Engelmann spruces that had been felled to clear a spot for the house. She thought of the tepee they had lived in before the kids came, when they were twenty and she’d had the good sense to buy land in Montana with money inherited from her grandmother’s estate. They had dug the garden out of the hard clay with pickaxes before the house or the children or the wall. It had been everything to them.
She had not touched the garden all summer. She hadn’t pulled one weed, nor clipped back one perennial for a second bloom, nor filled in a single gap with annuals from the farmers’ market. She hadn’t watered either. Not once. And now the last of the delphiniums and the first of the black-eyed Susans and the surplus of hollyhocks all floated impressionistic in front of her. Somehow the garden had thrived without her.
She shook her head hard, as if to get water out of her ear, and put down her wine. And she turned to look at her land — all twenty acres of it — and remembered something her father had said once, while visiting from central Illinois, where he raised soybeans and corn for gentlemen-farmers from Chicago: “Where’s the vegetable garden?” he’d asked.
Her father loved nothing more than a garden tomato. He held the fruit in his hand as if it were an organ for a sick child. He cut it as if it were his deepest misery. He ate it as if it were manna from heaven. Then he lost two fingers and the thumb on his right hand to a combine, and after that he gardened less, farmed more, fathered only minimally. But he had seemed perturbed by her lack of a vegetable garden. “People in the suburbs have flower gardens,” he said.
Her mother had been raised in the suburbs and didn’t care for farm life, but she did know her way around a vegetable garden. The happiest days of her parents’ married life had been spent planting their garden and reaping its harvest. When they came to Montana to visit, her mother was as happy to see the perennial garden as her father was disdainful of it.
Now her father was gone, and all she could think of was his two-finger-and-one-thumb-poor hand holding a tomato.
She knew the sun’s path from her summer porch-sitting, and she went to the spot where it shone most of the day. There, she walked off a fair-sized garden. Then she went inside and looked her husband square in the face for the first time in weeks. “I would like to plant a vegetable garden.”
“Isn’t it a little late in the season?”
“We’ll need ten-foot-tall posts — about twenty of them — and wire to keep the deer out. It doesn’t have to be fancy.”
He looked away, and she wondered who his lover might be and if he was seeing her face, but then she didn’t care.
“I’ll need your help,” she said.
Two Saturdays passed, and she worked alone with a pickax on the sunny patch of land, eyeing the river birches and aspens going flaxen and the larches threatening to do the same. The soil was mostly clay and bedrock, and she drove the ax into it the way her father had taught her to chop wood: aiming through it, past it. She thought of her father near the end of his life, making deals with the grain-silo owner and the gentlemen-farmers from Chicago, pulling off his oxygen mask to talk on the phone about the price of corn and soybeans. Once, he had hallucinated that the grain silo was for sale, and she had called the foreman of the silo and asked him to reassure her father. He’d grabbed the receiver from her as if the person on the other end were a lover she shouldn’t know about, and he’d said, “See how women spread rumors. I never said anything of the sort. Of course the silo is not for sale.” But she could see he was relieved. It didn’t matter that he treated her like a secretary or even an enemy, because she knew that, in certain circumstances, to love someone is to treat them like the shit on the bottom of your shoe.
She thought of this as she drove the ax past the clay and bedrock while her husband skirted the garden on his riding lawn mower or chopped wood out back. At least he was with her, in the only way that he could be for now, and not with his lover.
“How can you put up with it?” a friend said one day. “That asshole. The summer your father dies.” The friend had caught her crying alone, and she’d been unable to think of a lie.
“His actions will pay for themselves,” she told her friend. “I have greater pain.”
When her husband left the house — to pick up a part at the hardware store, or to go for a long walk in the woods, or to have a drink in town — she wondered if there was a woman waiting for him somewhere. Even if there was, it was smaller than her father’s death.
If her husband caught a hint of sadness in her eyes as he prepared to leave, she was quick to say, “I miss the dog,” so it would be easy for him to go, if he needed to that badly.
At night her back ached between her shoulder blades from the garden work, but she kept it to herself and lay on a clandestine ice pack as they watched the Red Sox beat the Yankees to win the pennant. The city of Boston was preparing for the World Series. If the Sox won, it would be the first time since 1918 — the year of her father’s birth. It would break the “curse of the Bambino,” which had plagued the Sox ever since they’d traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees. On the other couch her husband cheered and swore and drank bourbon while the TV showed baseball fans in Irish bars crying into their beer with renewed hope. She wished she cared one way or the other and wondered what it would take, after the World Series was over, to keep her husband home at night.
But she did not feel sorry for herself. In an odd way it helped that something so shoddy was happening right under her nose, and she was thankful to have such an easy target for her anger. She had never felt less like a fool.
That night he wanted to make love to her, but when they tried, she had no wetness for him, and they stopped and went to sleep and did not speak of it. She especially did not speak of the pain between her shoulders, the pain that went through her, past her.
After she had tilled a fifty-by-fifty-foot patch of garden in the rocky ground, the rain came and ran in rivulets between the clay, creating a Grand Canyon topography that would never hold a carrot, much less a tomato.
She needed soil.
They had no money that fall, so she bartered some of her father’s old tools for the use of her neighbor’s skid steer and auger, and, with the neighbor’s help, she got the posts in and cemented down. Then she bartered some baby-sitting with another neighbor in exchange for the wire left over from their chicken coop, and she wrapped it ten feet high around the garden in an afternoon.
And then the garden sat and waited. And Boston waited for the World Series. And when her husband worked late, she waited for him. Those nights, she resisted the temptations of wine and horses and instead took slow nighttime walks after she’d put the children to bed. The birch and aspen leaves had fallen, mottling the forest floor with brown, and the larches were poised for their winter death. And she realized that her world had come back into sharp focus, despite everything.
During the last game of the World Series, with her children and husband lying on couches and a fire burning in the wood stove, she got up to answer the phone. It was her mother.
“It seems your father changed his life-insurance policy. From the hospital. And you got half the money. You should be getting it soon.”
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“Don’t be. I’m happy for you.”
“I’ll put it in an account for you, in case you need it later.”
“Don’t be silly. Use it on something nice for yourself.”
She smiled because her father had made a deal for her in the end. And she called the best dirt broker in the valley and arranged for ninety-three cubic yards to be delivered the following Monday. Then she sat down to watch the game, feeling different now that she had her father on her side — feeling puffed up with it.
She watched her husband watching baseball and wondered why he did not consider her enough, why her cheekbones and hips and breasts and ankles were not enough. She had always been beautiful. Her father even called her “Beautiful.” “Who is ‘Beautiful’?” the nurses had asked, calling from the ICU at three in the morning when she’d been camping out at her parents’ house during his illness. “He’s asking for Beautiful.”
“That’s me,” she’d said, embarrassed. “I’ll be right over.”
Pregnancy had taken its toll, and stress had thinned her hair, but she was still the sort of woman who turned heads. The yellow alcohol cast in her eyes was fading now, since the garden.
“Why don’t you help me tomorrow. With the dirt,” she said, emboldened by her father’s postmortem vote of confidence, thinking, Who could this woman be that you would choose her over me in these hard days? Thinking, What kind of a spiritual debt are you willing to incur? Feeling her taste for anger and not caring.
He turned from the game, and she met his gaze with her greater pain and her new money. “I want tomatoes next August.”
“You look just like your father,” he said.
“I’d give two fingers and a thumb to have him back,” she said.
He watched her then. He missed a home run with the bases loaded, watching her.
The dirt arrived that Monday, and her husband was there with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. It took them all day, but they turned the good soil into the clay, digging and digging until they had a glistening black patch of tilth. And that night she gave him her ice pack for his aching back and made love to him and fell asleep dreaming of tomatoes.
Laura A. Munson