REMNANTS by Julia Hogan
by Julia Hogan
The day my father’s friend, Wade, tried to build us a screened-in porch on the front of our house was the day my mother decided to move out. Wade made his living by selling muscadine grapes and handmade cowboy hats. He lived in a trailer off of I-85, on a piece of land that used to be large but had been whittled away as he sold acres to pay for his liquor without having to get a regular job. Wade enlarged his trailer with plywood and sheet metal and duct tape. My mother called him a redneck, a bum, a white trash ignoramus, but my father saw it as ingenuity.
“My friend Mary Ann has a screened-in porch,” I said. I was about ten, and to me, that was about as close to luxury as you could get in a town like Kite, South Carolina. “She’s also got one of those above ground pools. Sometimes her daddy finds dead baby mice in it. They try to go swimming and get killed by all the chlorine.” My parents were arguing about Wade the night before he was supposed to come and build our screened-in porch.
“Why are you guys going to the hardware store tonight?” she asked my father. “It’s late, and they’ll be closed. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s why you should never drink pool water,” my father said to me. He turned to my mother. “Imagine how wonderful it will feel to sit outside and not get eaten up by mosquitoes.” There was a knock on the door. I knew it was Wade, because it was past dinner time, and no one came to the door after seven.
I opened the door and Wade stood there, in a dusty and wrinkled shirt, carrying a hammer and nails and a six pack of beer. He wore a lopsided cowboy hat with the word Rebel etched in the crown and feathers hot glued to the brim.
“Hey, sweet pea,” he said to me. He tried to come inside, but I blocked the doorway. I could see the beer cans sweating, and I knew he’d just bought them. Wade didn’t have a refrigerator. He had a cooler and he mostly ate canned soup, Spam, and white bread anyhow. I could always smell it on his breath.
“My mom says you’re an ignoramus,” I said. I didn’t know what the word meant, but I liked the sound of it on my tongue. I’d just learned how to curse, but this was as close as I’d come to cursing at an adult for a while.
“Isn’t that sweet,” Wade said. He tried to come inside again but I didn’t move.
“My mom thinks it’s weird that you guys are going to go to the hardware store this late. She says that it won’t be open anyhow. She thinks you’re up to something.” This last part was my own assumption. I didn’t trust Wade. His hair was the color of rusted nails and his eyes shone like oil.
“Let Uncle Wade in, honey,” my dad said from the kitchen. I moved over a little and let Wade sidle past me, like a crab. He didn’t shut the door behind himself.
I followed him to the kitchen, where he put the six pack of beer in the fridge. My mother stared at a magazine in her lap. My father was talking about the screened-in porch.
“We’ve got to go get a staple gun,” my father said. “Do you have a staple gun?” he asked Wade. Wade shook his head. He stared at my mother. “We’ve got to get some two-by-fours and screen. Surely they sell all of this at the hardware store. Surely it can’t be that expensive.”
“We can get screen at the dump,” Wade said, “and we’ll find other places to get wood and stuff. Don’t worry, it won’t cost that much. I’ve done this a hundred times.” He turned to me.
“We better get going. You wanna come along?” I didn’t answer but I followed Wade and my father out to the car. My mother sighed and I heard her slam the magazine down on the table, start collecting dishes with too much force. I think she knew I’d always choose my father over her.
“We’ll be back in a few, Linda,” Wade said to my mother as he slammed the front door. Wade drove a small truck, with duct tape on the bumper. I squeezed into place between my father and Wade on the front seat, and I was so close to him that I could feel his arm hair brushing my shoulder.
Wade pulled down a long gravel driveway that sloped through a construction site. He turned off the headlights and parked the car near the skeleton of a house. My father didn’t ask any questions. Wade got out of the truck, and motioned for my father to follow him.
“You stay here,” he said to me. I watched as they went to a pile of wood and pulled out long strips. They carried it back, four pieces at a time, over their shoulders, and began filling the bed of the truck.
“I think this is illegal, Dad,” I said to my father.
“Wade knows what he’s doing,” my father said, but I could see the confusion in his eyes, the worry, as he glanced behind his shoulders and worked faster than before. I got out of the truck cab and went to where Wade was examining a piece of pine.
“You know that you and my daddy could get arrested for this,” I said, though I wasn’t sure.
“This isn’t illegal, it’s recycling,” Wade said. “They’re going to throw this junk out anyhow. This is scrap wood. The stuff left over. No one wants it.” I didn’t believe him, but when he handed me a piece of wood to take back to the car, I took it. Soon, we had the bed of the truck filled. Wade laid a tarp over it and told me to tell my mother that we got it at the dump. “She’ll freak out,” Wade said. “It’s just her nature.” I kept my fingers crossed. Somewhere an owl called, a low vibration through the air, who cooks for you, who cooks for you, who cooks for you now? I’d grown up hearing owls call but this one seemed different. My father held onto my hand. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t the first illegal enterprise my father had been a part of. I didn’t know that sometimes the danger is worth it.
We got in the car, but when Wade turned the key in the ignition, the only sound was a sputtering roar. He stopped, cursed under his breath, and tried again.
“What’s that noise? Something wrong with your car?” my father asked. Wade turned the key again, and again.
“No, you idiot, it is supposed to do this,” Wade said. He punched the steering wheel. We sat there in the dark for a while, Wade pushing at the key, trying for a miracle. “You got jumper cables?” Wade asked.
“At home,” my father said.
“Well go and get them,” Wade said.
“That’s got to be like, ten miles down the road,” my father said.
“Thumb a ride,” Wade said. “Run. Steal a horse. You’re creative, so get going.” My father couldn’t argue with Wade’s logic. In his eyes, there were greater things at stake. I respected him more because of this danger he faced. It seemed, to me, like an act of kindness. He got out of the car.
“You stay here,” he said to me. “Help Uncle Wade.” My father disappeared into the dark halo of woods and gravel paths that surrounded the construction site. Wade and I waited, listening to the crickets and the cars up on the highway. Wade started humming something under his breath.
“What is that?” I asked. He lit a cigarette.
“An old blues song,” Wade said. “Your father and I used to listen to it, all the time, as kids. It was an old song even then.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Your mother used to listen with him—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, all of it.” I had never heard my parents listening to blues music together. My mother loved country, pop. She didn’t appreciate the sweet humming, harmonicas, disharmony of the blues. Wade got out of the car, held the cigarette tight between his teeth. “You think unloading some of this wood will help the truck start?” he asked me. I followed him.
“I dunno,” I said. “I don’t know anything about cars or wood.”
“What do you know about?” Wade asked. He threw back the tarp and took a board over his shoulder. I didn’t know how to answer his question, and I still don’t, and I think that’s why I remember that night. As Wade unloaded the truck, taking back pieces that he didn’t think we needed and smaller boards that were little more than scrap wood, I thought about my mother. I knew that she didn’t want a screened-in porch, that no matter what my father brought back, it wouldn’t be enough to hold her still. I knew that she felt trapped, in the same way as the finches that sometimes found themselves in our attic, confused about how they got there in the first place. I knew that all my father was doing was providing her with another exit, another escape route.
Wade continued singing, even as the police car crackled down the gravel path. At first, I thought it was my father, but then I saw the white of the car, the unfamiliar headlights. I didn’t alert Wade. I didn’t yell, “Run” or take off into the woods or drop the wood in my hands. Instead, I let the cop car come to a stop by Wade’s truck. By then, Wade had noticed the car and stopped to watch. He still held a board over one shoulder. The policeman stepped out of the car. Neighbors had called the cops, more out of curiosity than any real worry. When I told this story to people, I always wondered if he had been telling the truth.
“You don’t need to bother explaining,” the officer said. “It don’t take much to figure out a robbery.” Wade looked at the ground, and then the sky. The officer saw me. “Why you got this kid out here so late?” he asked. Wade turned to look at me, as if he’d forgotten I was there. His eyes met mine.
This is when my father—after successfully hitchhiking home and grabbing the jumper cables—drove back to help jump Wade’s truck. The officer draws his pistol, then yells at my father to put his hands in the air, et cetera. Later, looking back, I would realize that what happened next was an unbelievable story, almost a bad bar joke. As Wade turned around, the piece of wood slung over his shoulder turned with him, and happened to nail the officer in the forehead. I know it seems unbelievable, but that whole night was a parade of missteps and backfires, and at the time, I didn’t think much of it. The officer fell to the ground, not so much from the injury, which was no more than a bad bruise, but from the shock of it.
I don’t really remember what happened next, but somehow the officer got his radio out and called another cop. It turned out that Wade had an outstanding warrant with the Kite police department, for a bar fight. One police officer read him his rights, patted him down. They seemed excited from the conflict, as if nothing like this usually happened. Another officer stood with my father and I and watched us, as if we might run off into the woods and fields, or evaporate into the sky.
They took us to the police station, first Wade, and then my father and I in a different car. On the way to the police station my father tried to talk to me.
“I didn’t know all of this would happen, Carrie,” he said. I just nodded and kept my eyes focused on the back of the cop’s head. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have let you come,” my dad said. He wasn’t talking down to me. From that night on, my dad stopped treating me as if I was a kid, and instead acted as if I was his friend or accomplice, depending on the situation.
“When your mom comes to pick us up, don’t make it sound as bad as it was,” my dad said. “Just soften it a little. I don’t want her to be worried about you. You weren’t scared, were you? You didn’t feel as if you were in danger, right?”
“No, Dad,” I said. I didn’t remind him of the sheen of sweat on the back of his neck as he tried to fill the bed of the truck with all the wood. I didn’t tell him that this whole night felt like holding your breath, that I didn’t know what was going to happen anymore.
“Maybe I’ll build us a gazebo,” he said. “Or a picket fence, or a vegetable garden, or an above ground pool.” I thought about what it would be like, to wake up one morning and find the bodies of dead mice floating in the chlorine, their paws and whiskers drooping, their eyes like little drops of tar.
I think the police considered charging my father with child neglect, because of all the danger I was in. They glared at him as we waited for my mother to pick us up. But when she did come, their eyes softened, and they let us go without a struggle. She looked so tired. In towns like Kite, people have a different notion of forgiveness. My mother drove us home in silence. My father tried to start conversations with her. She stared at the road and didn’t hum blues or rock‘n’roll under her breath, not even country, which she liked to listen to when she cleaned the house or felt tired. When we got home, my mother stopped for a minute, stared at the front door, at the light radiating from the living room windows, at the empty front yard, the half-dead magnolia tree that dripped red seeds and boat-like leaves and southern-smelling flowers onto the lawn.
“I’m not doing this anymore, Neil,” my mother said to my dad, watching his eyes open and his lips part like he was about to say something else, like he was doing all he could to swallow his words.
“It’s late, Linda,” my dad said. “Let’s go inside, let’s get some sleep, let’s forget about this until morning.” My father’s philosophy revolved around never making grand decisions at night, because that was when the worst part of you came out. My mother didn’t answer him. She turned off the car and got out, leaving the key in the ignition. My father watched her go to the door and unlock it and enter the house. He got out of the car, followed her through the open door, watched her toss her clothes into a suitcase.
I followed my mother out to the porch and waited for the taxi to come. Her bags lay next to her. She must have called the taxi before she even left to pick us up from the police station, to convince the driver to drive the hour and a half from Greenville to Kite, pick her up, and take her to wherever she planned to escape to. She sat on the front steps, pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of her pocket. She lit a cigarette, and then handed me the lighter.
“Give that back to your father,” she said. She smoked with an easy rhythm, like a jogger’s breath.
“He didn’t mean it,” I said. I thought about what my father told me to tell her, when we were in the car together. “I wasn’t in danger. We just got confused. Wade told him that it was scrap wood. You know how Dad is.” I didn’t understand why it had become my job to hold my parents together. My mother sighed, stood up, laid her cigarette butt on the porch rail, and took my hand.
“Can you handle him?” she asked. I knew that if I said no it wouldn’t fix anything. I didn’t tell her that handling my father wasn’t my job, that I was a child and too small to handle anything like that. I didn’t ask her to stay, because I knew that she couldn’t forgive that much. I didn’t want her to take me with her, and later, I understood that wherever she ended up, she needed to be alone. I didn’t tell her that I needed her, that there were some things only a mother could take care of, that I was afraid of the places my father kept inside his head.
I just said, “Sure,” and took my hand from hers, like a tree pushing away its leaves. The taxi pulled up, a shuddering yellow in the night, and my mother picked up her bag. Years later, when my mother would call me, late at night, from far away cities that didn’t seem to exist on maps, I would remember this feeling of loneliness. The feeling was etched into my skin that night, and it would quiver whenever I saw other friends’ moms, but also Winstons, blue asters, mockingbirds, wine coolers dewing in the grocery store. I had known mothers who disappeared. I knew it wasn’t unusual, that in this day and age, maternal bonds were weaker.
The last thing I remembered, as I sat in my father’s attic and played his dusty records, was the ending to this story. I remembered standing out on the porch, watching the taillights disappear, and soon I could hear the music roaring from the living room, these sad blues records, evil, that’s evil, I don’t need no woman, I don’t want no grindin’, Why don’t you hear me cryin’? It overtook the house, and flowed down the street, into the surrounding woods and fields and all the way down the highway, through the middle of Kite, South Carolina, following my mother as she pushed further and further away from us. I went inside and saw my father lying on the living room floor, his records spread around him, the tips of his fingers clinging to the fibers of the rug. He sang along to the music, under his breath, but I couldn’t hear his voice. I could only see his lips move, his fingers pull as if he were trying to hold himself to the ground, as if at any moment he might let go and float upward and disappear.
Julia Hogan was born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. She writes about blues music, birds, and her family, because that is what she loves. Julia is a 2013 Scholastic Gold Medalist in short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and a portfolio silver medalist. She is also a 2013 Presidential Scholar for the Arts semifinalist and National YoungArts finalist for creative nonfiction. You can find her poetry in the upcoming issue of the Monongahela Review.
Image: 1978 Ford F150 Ranger, Lone Pine, California by Curtis Perry on Flickr