Dust lay everywhere, settling on anything exposed. Not the fine, brown sifted dust of early summer, this was the gray and choking dust of August. Topsoil and road dirt, it stirred at movement and sank heavy with the end of movement.
There had been no rain for a month now, the air was humid and there was no wind. The air held the land with moisture pressing heat out of the land itself.
Even in the hour before dawn, the air was humid, the ground warm and thick with dust. The nights were now unrelenting distances between the days.
An old woman lay awake inside the house and stared at the darkness that was the ceiling. An old man’s heavy breathing intruded to remind her of the place and time.
She gripped an edge of the bed, sat up and place her bare feet on the floor. Age and weariness focused in her head, and she stood.
When she had buttoned a cotton dress to the top button, she walked in darkness to the kitchen where she sat down on a straight-backed chair. Her hand found the socks neatly rolled in shoes under the chair. Bending her back announced a new pain, but she took her time pulling the socks on her feet.
The old man sucked air into his large chest. The refrigerator dripped water and kicked on again. The old man spit out air.
She laced her shoes tightly and shuffled to the stove. Slowly her left hand stuffed corncobs into the firebox; her right hand pulled the jar of Lucifers close. Several sheets of newspapers from a pile satisfied her, and she struck a match to fire the paper and broken cobs. Mister Stalin’s obituary set the flames to dancing.
As she walked now in dim light to the water bucket, she wiped her hand down her dress. She dipped water into the coffee pot, filled it with yesterday’s grounds and set it on the stove. Breakfast and her day had begun.
The smell of hot coffee woke the old man. He stood stiffly, pulled on overalls and walked from the bedroom into the kitchen where he found his boots. He laced them loosely and roll the sleeves of his long underwear over his thick arms. Snapping the buttons of his fly, he stepped to the washstand. His teeth rested in a fixed gin at the bottom of a water glass. He picked the dentures from the glass, shook them free of water, put them in his mouth.
“Mm.” He lifted the cup and saucer she had placed on the table before him.
“It’s close.” She meant, of course, the heat of humidity of the morning would swell with the day.
“Yeah.” Pouring the coffee into the saucer, he blew across its surface.
“I’ll be needing some things from town today. Groceries and such.”
“ ‘Kay.” He sucked coffee from the saucer.
“You’ll be wanting some dinner.”
“Not much.” He finished his coffee and set saucer on the table, the cup turned upside down on the saucer.
“I’ll not keep the fire all day then.”
He reached for the fedora hanging on a peg near the door. This hat, filled with cigars wrapped in cellophane, had been a gift that Christmas the boy had gone to The Front. Then it had been brown and shaped and modest. Now the boy was dead, and the hat was gray and limp. He had smoked the cigars that winter years before.
“I’ll fetch water.” He shoved the hat on his head and stepped into the yard, letting the screen door slam back on the kitchen.
He did not need to look about him to know his place, a farm that squatted at the junction of three dirt roads. Each road ended in a small town, and each town measured ten miles from the junction. Local people called it Ten Mile, but the name referred to the junction not the farm which lacked the size or need for a name. It was simply a farm.
A quarter section of land supported five buildings: a small house, a barn, a tool shed, a chicken coop. The fifth building was an outhouse. House and barn faced each other, north to south. The shed stood west of the barn, the coop between the barn and the house at the end of a large, dirt yard enclosed by the buildings and open only to the junction.
Here the man’s routine began, the daily chores, the cows to feed and milk and drive into the pasture, the mules to water and lead into the near pasture, the chickens to loose into the yard.
Through the screen she saw him walk to the pump. He did not walk quickly, but he walked erect; he was no long young, but he was still strong, still proud. She saw the field behind him and felt a connection in the points of that line: she, her man, their field.
There had been seasons whey they had worked the field together, Garth, Leah and their first mule. Once, as they prepared to turn at the end of a row of corn, the mule startled and looked up frightened. The rider was coming straight for them. She had thought he must not have seen them because of the corn. She began to share the mule’s fear, but Garth had not moved. At the edge of the field the rider had turned his horse to the left and was already heading to the next farm as he shouted to them, “ The President’s been shot! The President’s been shot!”
Two weeks later they learned from the newspapers that Mr. McKinley was dead.
Leah had miscarried for the first time six months later.
Watching him cross to the barn she pushed a strand of hair from her forehead. She arranged the table for breakfast. Now she sat, drank a second cup of coffee and waited.
Garth entered, slapping dust from his legs. He set down a dripping bucket near the door and sat down at the table. Pouring sugar into his coffee he did not stir the mixture but ignored it and pointed to the biscuits from yesterday’s baking warmed in the oven.
She passed him the hot syrup too and traced random designs in the perspiration of the water pitcher. She sipped black coffee and nibbled a biscuit.
“Do you want more?”
She stood to clear the table. He handed her his saucer and empty cup and disappeared out the door letter the screen door slam.
As she threw out the dish water, she shaded her eyes to see him at the car, peering at its engine.
Steadying the pan of rinse water with both hands, Leah carried it carefully from the kitchen to the rose bush. It was a rose propagated by Lacharme in the garden of Malmaison and had been brought from France by a wealthy St. Louis banker. Her father had represented the upriver commercial interests of this banker and had received gifts as well as as commissions for his work. One such gift had been a Lacharme rose bush.
Leah set the pan down. With her fingers she sprinkled water gently on the petals and the buds. Some of this water dripped to where it made small craters in the dust.
She remembered her father and his many roses; how he had enjoyed tending each and talking about them all. The French rose had become his immediate favorite. He had planted it in front of the big house there at the top of a sloping bluff overlooking the river; almost, she thought, as doctors and other lawyers posted signs. The display was unusual for him.
But his roses were not simply plants to him. Some mornings he would pace the grounds with Leah and her sister in tow and speak of roses. He taught them which roses bloomed throughout the season and which bloomed in spring and then again only in autumn. He demonstrated how best to water each plant and insisted they learn the proper pruning techniques. And all the while he sprinkled petals with water from his fingers dipped into his ever-present bucket or cut back dead wood or pointed to this sepal, that stolon. Measuring each word, weighing each phrase for effect, he would recite and translate the poet Vergil, who also grew roses. He spoke of Mr. Darwin and other famous men who had been called to a royal garden to create new roses. History, laws, legend, facts and fancies, civilization itself he brought to the cultivation of his roses and to his daughters.
Leah slowly poured the remaining water onto the ground at the base of the bush. The ground would not let stand but swallowed it quickly allowing only a slight change of color to mark its going.
Placing her hands on her back as she straightened, she thought again of her sister, Rachel, dead from that awful flu which swept the country and held the living and the dying close. Civilization had not saved Rachel.
Dusting the window sill in the parlor, she saw Garth still at the car, but when she came from the bedroom to the kitchen, she head him washing at the pump. She set the table for dinner.
He looked at the clock as he entered. “Your list ready?”
“I’m making it now. Sit down. Dinner is waiting.”
Garth placed his hat on the back of the chair and wiped his head with a large bandana. “Too hot for much.” He sugared his iced tea.
She wrote and handed him the list. He held it at arm’s length to read it. Folding it casually, he put it in a breast pocket of his overalls.
She examined a piece of cold roast beef on her plate. “Will you be stopping at Hoppie’s?”
“You know what I think. What I’ve always thought.”
“Don’t start, woman.”
“You know what I think.”
“I said, ‘Maybe’.”
They stared at one another across the table and the years.
“I’ll go then.” He rose, took his hat and walked into the yard, letting the screen door slam shut.
She heard the car door slam, the engine start. The sounds of tires on dirt faded, and he was gone as she stood to clear the table.
From the window of the bedroom she could see the pasture. She squinted to see the kitten with the chewed ear stalking grasshoppers as both mules grazed nearby.
She gently touched the bruise on her breast. It was large and painful, but she would not think of that now. She would think of her father.
Her father had walked through his roses that day, many years ago when he had voiced his opposition to her proposed marriage to Garth. Among the roses, late in spring, he had spoken of family, tradition, religion. He had reminded her of virtue and struggle, and he had not mentioned romance. But he had spoken softly, and he had said that if she thought and persisted, he loved her too much to stand opposed. This one time, just once, he would say his mind.
“This man comes from a brutish background. He has no learning in him.”
She had countered, spoke of love, of spring, of the pleasures of courting and companionship, of the desire for children.
Her father had smiled. Lightly he had pushed a lock of her fine hair that had strayed into its rightful place. He had put his arm around her small shoulders and led her back toward the big house.
“He has his merits, child, and I shall say no more on this subject. Ever.”
Of course, he had kept his promise.
Downstairs in the small parlor, she pulled the faded green shades and decided to bake a cobbler, a peach cobbler.
The crust had given its over heat to the room’s heat. The sun had gone red behind a curtain of waving heat and then had disappeared, but the heat remained unabated.
She waited as long as she dared and then went to the coop and bolted the door. She led the mules to the barn, fed and watered them patiently.
Driving the cows was slow work. She was careful and thorough to feed and milk them. After two hours she was stiff and dusty and resentful. Her hands shook as she emptied the final bucket into the large can and sealed it.
She had known she was tired then. She could see it in her clumsiness as she filled the cats’ water bowl. She could feel it when she held her handkerchief under the pump spout wiping her face and neck, letting the water run down her back.
She took time now to eat, but left the cobbler where it sat. Slowly, carefully she washed her supper dishes. When she went to the door with two pans of the day’s food scraps, the cats were waiting, the dog sitting patiently behind them. She set the pans outside the door, looked out to the junction and stepped back into the kitchen.
Sighing, she found her darning basket in the parlor. The light in the kitchen was enough, and she intended to wait there. She was not going to bed yet, but she did not darn socks either. With the basket on the kitchen table, she sat, her hands folded in her lap. She heard the refrigerator, a cricket somewhere behind the stove, the cats contending for food, the dog scooting his pan along the ground, growling occasionally as some cat sought inclusion.
How long she sat there she did not know. She no longer heard the cats. A car pulled into the dirt yard and braked hard. The car door slammed, and she stood, pushing the chair against the table.
“Close the door.” Both hands rested on the back of the chair.
He turned and slammed the screen door twice.
“Don’ wanna talk.” He leaned against the wall holding a sack out to her.
She smelled peppermint from the bag and whiskey from his mouth. “ ‘Now the works of the flesh are manifest…”
He lurched toward the table.
“…adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, …”
He swayed and dropped the bag on the table.
“…murders, drunkenness, heresies, envyings…”
Garth steadied himself against the table and pushed himself upright.
“…they which do such things, shall not inherit the kingdom of God.’”
He shoved her, and she fell back and down, her back striking the stove. He swung around and staggered into the bedroom.
She pulled her legs under her, slowly pushing up and away from the stove. Gripping the chair, she raised herself, feeling the pain spread across her shoulders. Waves of black and light passed before she looked up and took her bearings. Nothing felt broken.
The light in the kitchen slanted into the bedroom, and she saw him sprawled across the bed, his feet over the edge. He was fully dressed and soundly asleep.
She pushed his legs together and gently placed his arms at his sides. She removed his hat and put it carefully on the rocking chair but left his boots on. The spread, exposing only his head and feet, fit loosely over him. She wrapped it neatly around him and pushed a stray lock of her hair out of her eyes.
She chose her best darning needle and her heaviest thread. When her hands trembled, she willed them steady, threaded the needle and neatly knotted the thread ends.
Of course, she had selected more thread than she needed, and, after she stitched the folds of the spread together, she cut the excess with scissors. Using a small and exact knot, she joined the two strands together tightly.
On her way through the kitchen she replaced the needled, unused thread and scissors in the darning basket. She closed the screen door quietly and deliberately, as deliberately as she opened the shed door.
A yellow cat had followed her, hoping perhaps for more food and watched her feel her way along the wall nearest the door. She passed over the lightning rods and wagon tongue and found her father’s old buggy whip. Closing the door she decided not to latch it but walked toward the house. The cat did not follow.
Standing beside the bed she heard his snoring deep and regular.
She gripped the whip in both hands, raised it above her head, ignoring the twinge of pain in her shoulders, she brought it down hard on his back. Again she raised it and again slapped it down. Again. And again, until she lost awareness of raising and lowering. She concentrated on his body and the swooshing noise of the whip slicing air. Her aim was uncontrolled, but his body was large and confined within the spread.
Exhausted finally, she held the whip on his back, bent over him and gasping. She straightened and let go of the whip to place both hands low on her back. In time her breathing steadied.
The old man sucked in noisy gasps. Blotches of red stained the white of the chenille spread. He spit out grunts as she quietly closed the screen door.
She sat down on the steps, smoothed her dress and ran her hands over her hair. She would make fresh coffee. Yes. She would need her energy to walk the two miles to the telephone. She could wait there for the doctor, and he could bring her home. There would be time for questions. She folded her hands in her lap and learned back against the screen door.
Perhaps she would carry water to the rose again. Yes. She would do that. There would be time for the rose too. She closed her eyes.
Dust lay everywhere.
[ The title, Any Loving Way But Wrong, appears in the song, Just The Other Side Of Nowhere, lyrics and music by Kris Kristofferson (1967). ]