Keith Moore

 

She dried her hard, callused hands on the faded red apron that hung from her waist as she gazed quietly at the setting sun. Through the kitchen window she caught a glimpse of the dog pulling at the sheets on the clothesline.

“Get away from there,” she whispered. “Get away.”

The view from the window hadn’t changed all summer. The land was dusty and cracked. A handful of rusted silos dotted the smooth, unbroken horizon, while limp corn stalks, dry and crisp, sat barren in the fields behind the house. A tractor, once shiny and blue, now faded and caked in dirt, sat motionless by the barn, consumed by the wild weeds and spotty patches of grass that grew around it.

She had her mother’s hands, she thought, as she held them in front of her. They were thick and muscular, dark and weathered from the earth’s soil. She had broken a couple of fingers once, but couldn’t remember which ones or on which hand. They all looked broken.

Dinner was ready. It would be the third straight night they’d eat leftovers, but he didn’t seem to care. There were a couple of baked potatoes and a slice or two of stale bread, along with the stew she had made earlier in the week. Vegetables, once the crown jewels of her garden, had withered like the cornfields, reduced to shriveled, brown stumps by the relentless sun.

She heard him come up the back porch and kick his boots against the bottom step of the stairs, then slap his pants, trying to remove any dirt before entering the house. It had been his routine for almost 30 years now, and she knew it like clockwork. He would enter the house, wash his hands at the sink, and then pour himself a glass of water. He always drank from the same glass.

As he stood there drinking his water, she realized the sameness in all of this. This looked familiar, she thought. She had been here before. The two of them standing in silence in the kitchen, she in her apron, her graying hair tied up in a knot, he in his t-shirt, his overalls, his brown cowboy boots, the pair she had given to him for his birthday one year.

And in her mind, she knew how it would end. They would finish eating and he would go listen to the radio while she cleared the table and washed the dishes. She might read a magazine or a book, do a crossword puzzle, or maybe she would play cards. He in one room, she in another.

They ate mostly in silence. The food she prepared was never good enough, nor was it ever bad. It simply existed, much like the oven that she cooked on or the sink that she washed in. Tonight, however, he did speak.

“Food’s cold,” he said plainly, as if speaking to himself.

When he finished eating, he wiped his mouth with his napkin, pushed back his chair and stood. He paused and then carefully brushed off his pants. It was then that he might speak to her. It was always then, she thought, that he might say something. A word to acknowledge her presence, a sign that he knew she was there. But he said nothing. He turned and walked toward the living room.

She couldn’t remember why they had stopped talking, or even when. There wasn’t any one event she could point to. There had been no children, at least none that had survived birth, but those wounds, though not healed entirely, had faded with time. Money had always been short; they had struggled with that since they were first married. No, there was no one moment, no one incident that caused them to drift apart. And that’s what scared her.

She sat for a moment. The new Reader’s Digest had arrived earlier in the week. She could read that. She liked the “Laughter is the Best Medicine” section. She remembered the one where a Jewish man accidentally received a letter from the Catholic Church asking him if he were still interested in joining the priesthood. She had considered contributing something once, but didn’t think anything in her life was that funny. There was always Solitaire, of course, and a crossword puzzle left over from the Sunday paper. Then she heard the radio click on.

Slowly, she rose from her chair. She looked carefully at the plate in front of her before straightening her knife and fork, the way she thought they might do at a fancy restaurant. She placed her napkin gently on the table, and then removed her apron, placing it over the back of the chair. Walking through the kitchen, she crossed into the family room, which stood at the front of the house.

The walk from the kitchen to the front door had always been a short one, but for some reason it took longer this time. Maybe it was because she suddenly felt dizzy, or maybe it was because she was on the verge of tears. Only when the screen door caught for a moment on the rusted latch, did she realize how far she had come.

Carefully she pushed forward, opening the door as white paint flakes fell from its wood frame. She had meant to do some painting earlier in the summer, but the heat had been too much. Pausing briefly on the porch, she listened, then stepped onto the ground and began to walk.

She thought for a moment that he might follow. Surely he heard the squeal of the screen door, the rattling of the loose hinges as it slammed shut. Gradually she quickened her pace, gathering momentum as she approached the end of the driveway. She was crying now. Her heart was racing, her breathing short and ragged, her lungs full of the hot, stuffy evening air. She slowed for a moment at the gate, its rough, aging posts cracked and splintered. It was then that she turned around. There, in the approaching darkness, stood the barren cornfields, the brown grass, the withered garden, the faint crackle of his radio. She hurried into the darkness.

****

It was summer when the carnival arrived, an assortment of rusty, loose-hinged amusement rides, broken-down circus games and half-opened boxes of small prizes – stuffed animals and cheap plastic jewelry, mostly. It came every year, the carnival, a traveling show of drifters, vagabonds and runaways, passing through small border towns and poor farming villages.

They set up on abandoned playgrounds, dirt fields covered with small tufts of dead grass and overgrown weeds. It was here where they parked their trailers and assembled their rides. It was here, too, where the local children giggled and squealed, playfully stuffing their pockets with candy and gum, empty wrappers and loose change.

It was the sound of children, along with the muffled pipes of an old organ, churning and pumping their way through the thick night air that drew her to the carnival. She emerged from the darkness to a series of faded Christmas lights – blues, yellows, reds and greens – strung across the tops of the ticket booths and food stands. She paused and wiped her eyes.

She had been to the carnival once before, as a child. She and her brother explored the funhouse, rode the merry-go-round and ate cotton candy before her father got into a fight with one of the ticket collectors, a large man with tattooed hands. Bloodied and embarrassed, he dragged them home.

“Damn carnies,” her father said that night.

She slowly made her way around the grounds, careful to avoid the fire eaters, the knife throwers and the sword swallowers, the sideshows the townsfolk often whispered about. She stopped to watch the slow spin of the Ferris wheel. The passengers smiled and waved as the gondolas lifted them gently into the night sky.

It was here she noticed the man with the thick black moustache. He was standing beside a wooden booth beckoning to her with his outstretched arms. She looked behind her, thinking perhaps that he was calling to someone else. When she turned around, he had stepped closer, waving both his hands to get her attention. Reluctantly, she made her way forward.

As she approached, she noticed three empty milk bottles stacked in a triangle along the back of the booth. A handful of old softballs lay on the counter in front where the man with the moustache stood. Covered in dirty blue overalls and a stained white t-shirt, he talked to her in what she thought was sign language. She closely followed the movements of his thick fingers.

She stared at the milk bottles while the man gathered three of the balls and placed them before her. He pointed to the balls and then to the bottles and then held up three fingers. She stood quietly for several seconds before picking up one of the balls. Tracing her thumb over its seam, she gently rubbed the lumpy, discolored leather.

She nervously took the ball she was holding and tossed it haphazardly towards the bottles. The ball landed with a small thud against the tarpaulin backdrop. She turned to walk away, but the man raised his hands, his right pointing to another ball, his left with two fingers in the air.

There was light chatter behind her from the handful of people that had gathered to watch.

“You can do it,” someone said.

Flush and embarrassed by the attention, she grabbed the second ball, paused for a second, and then threw it. The ball again landed softly against the tarp and dropped to the ground. The man raised his left hand, his index finger pointed upward.

Her last throw was quick and hurried. The ball landed squarely in the middle of the bottles, knocking all three to the ground.

Surprised, she stepped back. A couple of onlookers clapped. The man with the moustache smiled. He disappeared behind the tarp, emerging moments later with a stuffed bear. It was old and tattered, its red bowtie frayed, but it didn’t matter. She had never won anything before.

She tucked the bear gently under her arm and nodded towards the man with the moustache. He winked and waved goodbye.

She wandered a bit more before stumbling upon a small wooden shed. She approached cautiously and pushed open the unlocked door. Finding an empty spot on the floor, she sat. Music from the carousel, calliope sounds from an old, scratchy record, played in the distance. I’ll rest for just a moment, she told herself, as she placed the bear in her lap.

****

She awoke to the sound of rain. It fell gently, quietly rolling down the muddy pane of the structure’s lone window. The pale morning light revealed her surroundings – a work shed, home to a broken shovel, a couple of steel rakes, an old pair of work gloves.

As she lay there, she wondered – had he noticed she was missing? Had he bothered to look for her? She stood and gently shook the bear free from dirt. Its black, button-shaped eyes jiggled softly, two loose strands of thread holding them each in place. She straightened her skirt and slowly made her way to the door.

Outside the air was heavy and wet, the grounds quiet. The low hum of generators, fuel for the creaky rides that twisted and jerked their way through the night, had ceased. Drops of water fell from the roofs of the empty booths, landing softly on the crusty patches of grass below. She held out her hand to catch what rain she could, quickly bringing small handfuls of water to her mouth.

She walked in silence. The dirt roads, hard and dusty from the draught, had started to form small puddles. She walked through them, much like she had done as a child. Please don’t do that, her mother had warned. We don’t have money to buy you a new pair of shoes.

The farm was quiet when she arrived, the house dark. A dog barked in the distance. As she approached, she placed her hand on the aging, splintered gatepost and used her fingers to chip at the cracked paint. She pulled the bear to her chest.

This looked familiar, she thought. She had been here before.