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Later, from what I saw and what he said, I could remember it all, even the parts before we were together.
I could imagine those moonless winter nights, when the headlights of the tractor lighted up the plow cutting through the earth and the clumps of heavy, sticky black dirt breaking apart on either side of the blade. He would have hunched his back against the wind, wearing that old cowboy hat slick with icy rain, trying to keep warm, like I saw him out the window so many times after I came.
Then, after hours of going up and down in the field from early-morning darkness to late-night darkness, he’d swing the tractor around, and the headlights would swoop across those black fields in a big, wide arc as he headed toward the barn and climbed down. He’d be a little bit stiff from sitting still so long, and he’d grab his thermos—the one he took to leaving for me later on—with just a little bit of lukewarm coffee left, and then he’d come in the cold house.
Before he took me to his house, he didn’t leave the heat up all day like he took to doing when I was there. No point. He was out all day. When he came in, he’d hang his jacket on the hook inside the kitchen door where he kept spread-out newspapers to catch the ice that melted off it and put his insulated rubber boots there, too, so they wouldn’t muck up the old linoleum his mother had chosen, I swear, at least thirty years before. Then he’d turn on the radio to a country music station, nice and loud, so he could hear it upstairs while he took away his chill with a long hot shower. If it was Saturday night, he’d iron his white shirt and jeans, whistling a little to the music, getting ready to go to town.
I can just see that in my mind’s eye because he did it exactly like that after we were together and went out sometimes. He liked a really hot shower, and the bathroom would fill with steam that billowed from the open door into the hall, like clouds filling the house. Then he’d walk naked from the bathroom to the bedroom.
He had a good body for a middle-aged man, good for anybody, anyway better than skinny, his hair a little thin in back maybe, his chest hair more grey than white, a nice solid man for fifty-five. People always thought it was funny, him so much older than me, but he was a good man, he had a good body. We were a match made in Heaven, he used to say.
Tell me, I’d ask him sometimes when we were sitting in the living room, me in my nightgown and him still in his longjohns, and he’d tell me like you tell a little kid a fairy story, how he was walking down Main Street, on his way to me although he didn’t know it yet. I can see how he would have looked that night because later on we walked out together after the show. His hair was already white, and the flashing neon of the bar signs splashed red and green on it, sort of magical, and I used to tease him about having punk hair, ask him when he was getting his ear pierced.
He said he was just out looking for a place to relax and laugh a little, shoot the breeze, he used to say, after those long cold days working, someplace where he could soak up relaxation like the summer sun that brought on his corn. Oh, yeah, that surprises you but he had a nice way of saying things. Maybe you wouldn’t expect that from a farmer, but in deep winter, when he didn’t have much to do in the fields, he’d read a lot. Not just magazines, either, big old books from the glass-fronted bookcase where he kept his grandaddy’s library.
But it was too dark and cold that night. He didn’t want just a book, so he decided to go downtown and sit in a bar for a while. Bars are great places for that, you know. They let you be part of everything just by being there. It’s nothing you have to deserve. Just enough money to nurse a couple of beers along. That’s all you need.
Anyway, he told me he had a feeling something special was going to happen that night. It was one of those horseshoe bars with the little stage in the middle, right up front where he was sitting. He was having his usual, the same thing he always got, a hot roast beef sandwich with horseradish sauce and fries and a draft beer.
There were three of us on this rotation—Tanya, Sophie and me. Harry—he was the booker—had a theory about dancers and he chose us for contrast. Tanya was tough, had a body like a whip. Hardly anybody even dared to talk with her. Charlie told me later he was scared even to look at her but she was a lovely dancer, the best of all of us. She had these long muscled legs, and her breasts were like baseballs. Nobody dared to call out anything when she was dancing. You almost had to laugh, when she was on, all those guys studied her real serious, like they were dance judges and just there for her artistic performance.
So when Sophie came on, that was a relief for them. She was a little older than us, but she was so pretty, Sophie, big and soft and white, sort of like your mother would have been if she’d been a bar dancer. She was real nice, always making tea and coffee, letting you borrow anything you needed and telling you all about the latest romance novel she was reading.
Sometimes I wished Harry would give me a fancy costume but he always wanted me in something plain. No sequins, no glitter. Just plain black. Shiny black. I had to concentrate on my dancing because I was kind of new to it so I just danced. I’d have to remind myself to smile but I didn’t feel like me when I was dancing, more like a girl who had found this stuff in an unused closet and was dancing in the attic, just to see what it felt like, while everybody else was out shopping, you know?
Well, that first night, he stayed to watch me dance three times. Three! Then he kept coming back, week after week. After a while, they started to tease me about him.
There was this tiny little dressing room all three of us shared. It was really just sort of a corner walled off with plywood. There was a long table with some old mirrors above made into a dressing table, and an old couch with a book under one leg, and a couple of thrown-out old easy chairs, nothing matching. We threw all our clothes around and smoked until the air was too thick to breathe, and the coffee pot was always on and an old radio that didn’t get any stations very clear, but somehow on cold nights, while we were waiting to dance, it was a good place to be for a while, sort of a safe place, even though you knew it wasn’t going to last very long.
We were getting ready one night. Tanya was brushing her hair up into a huge black halo and sprinkling it with green and gold glitter. Sophie was always dressed for dancing hours early, and she was perched up on a stool with her high-heeled legs crossed. I was still wearing this old bathrobe used to be my mother’s, sort of an Indian-blanket thing that wrapped twice around me, curled up on that old teetery couch. The dressing room was sort of drafty, and I always felt nervous before dancing, so I had my hands around a cup of cocoa to warm them up. I didn’t have to hurry because I went on last. Tanya, Sophie, me. Fifteen minutes on and then we sat out while the others went on.
The rotation was fine with us, and they never changed it. We all got to know him sitting there at his spot at the bar.
Well, that night Tanya came in and said, “Your admirer’s out there.”
“Yeah, I got this note,” I remember saying that first time. “He wants me to go out to eat with him after the show. I guess I will, but I’ll tell him to take me to the diner. If I don’t show up tomorrow, maybe you better have them drag the river.”
“He’s not like that,” Sophie protested. “He looks like a real nice guy. He’s been sitting out there for three weeks. I thought for a while of who he was waiting for, but it was you.”
Sophie was always hoping for love. Things like that happened in the box of romances she carried around, reminding Vince or Pete not to forget her library when they came to drive us to the next bar on the circuit.
“So what.” Tanya said. “Who’d you meet in a place like this? Nobody who’d ever let you escape. They’ll take you to a cheap hotel, ask you to keep dancing. Introduce you to their friends. ‘Great little dancer,’ they’ll say. You’ll never escape.”
But then we started going steady, sort of, and he waited for me every Friday and Saturday and sometimes during the week, the days he phoned and said he could make it. Sometimes he was too tired.
Then I told them he’d asked me to come live with him, maybe get married.
Tanya freaked out.
“Get serious,” she said. “The guy’s thirty years older than you. I grant you he looks younger. It’s that boyish grin. Farmboy. You’ll die. You know what farms are like around here. Subsistence. You’ll have to work your butt off.”
“Maybe they’re in love, Tanya. You ever think of that?”
Sophie was sitting cross-legged on the bed back in the motel, concentrating on changing her fingernails from red to rose.
“Whattaya think? It might not go with the red outfit.”
“Nobody looks at your nails, Sophie. They look at your tits,” Tanya said.
She was like that, always rough-talking, but I think she was just afraid to admit something good might happen sometimes. She was getting ready to run. No weather stopped her. Soon’s we got home, she ripped off her dancing stuff and pulled on sweats, legwarmers, headband. Just as she was going out the door, she turned around and asked me if I’d told Harry yet.
We were all a little bit scared of Harry. If you owed Harry money, from an advance or something, you didn’t leave. Vince and Pete made sure of that. Even if you didn’t owe him anything, Harry still got pissed. He didn’t like recruiting, didn’t like turnover.
“Yeah, I told him. Why not?”
“What’d he say?”
“I’d be back. That’s all. Said he’d seen it happen before.”
“Yeah. I think maybe he’s right. These good old boys want someone for the long dark nights. Don’t always work both ways. Ain’t no music, no lights in those old farmhouses. Still, you can always find us again.”
Tanya put on her gloves. The door let in a blast of freezing air and slammed in the wind when she left.
Sophie tilted her head back and evaluated her fingertips, then screwed the cap on the little bottle, careful not to spoil her polish.
“Don’t pay no attention to her. Sometimes I don’t think she’s a real woman. She don’t believe in love, and she’s younger than me, believe it or not. You try to make it with your farmboy. He looks like a real good man. I seen him out there watching you for weeks before he ever said anything. You’ll probably have a good life.”
She smiled and waved her hands, her fingers spread to protect the wet polish.
He picked me up after I did my last show on Saturday night, put my suitcase and overnight bag in the bed of the truck and threw a tarp over them. It was one of those really really cold winter nights when there’s no wind or snow or anything, but you feel like everything’s frozen hard as iron, and you feel sorry for little rabbits and things like that.
Before, I’d felt happy about going to live with him but all of a sudden it seemed different. Maybe my life hadn’t been worth much but it was my life. I knew my life there in the bars. I knew what I had to do and I gave value for my money, kept learning new steps, trying to improve. Now I was headed toward his territory, see. I knew I was going to have to learn everything new, find new shapes and new words for what was coming. It was sort of scary.
I got over feeling like that fast after we settled down. What we had for a while wasn’t his world or mine. It was ours. But there in the truck that night it was never-never land, not here nor there, not his nor mine. Like something we had to do, though, get through those miles.
After he settled my stuff, he came around and opened the door for me, helped me up the big step into the cab. It was already nice and warm because he’d come out earlier to turn on the heater. He did things like that.
We pretty much rode along in silence, and he kept his eyes on the road. I had trouble staying awake. A couple of times I started to sleep, and then I’d wake up, try to talk a little. Finally he told me just to go to sleep. It was good in there that night. The truck was so warm and the motor made a nice oily, grinding sound. It was sort of like a lullaby. When he pulled up in front of the house, I woke up and I’d slid over against his arm, and I was sleeping that way. For just a minute, I thought I was a little kid again, asleep in the car, and my dad would carry me in the house and tuck me in.
Then the part I like to remember started. I wanted the winter nights never to end there in his bed, sleeping together like our bodies had been dancing together forever, sometimes just changing positions, finding new ways to snuggle, me wrapped around his back, my arm around his belly, him wrapped around my back, and his hand on my breast. He worried his hands were too rough, said he’d start using Cornhuskers or Bag Balm, something like that. I said to him not to mind because, truth to tell, his hands were a little rough, but I loved the feel of them, knew that roughness came from the work he did taking care of things.
Then sometimes I’d start to touch him, and he’d touch me until we started to breathe faster, and then we’d make love, and the night would just go on and on. Part of it was leaving me sleeping in the morning, pulling on his clothes quietly so he didn’t wake me up. He’d make a pot of coffee and leave half of it for me. I usually woke up when he pulled the quilt up over me, but I didn’t let on, just slid into the warm place he left behind almost like he was still there.
After a while, he started putting the coffee in his thermos and leaving it beside the bed, cream and sugar in the flowered china that used to be his grandma’s. I told him to take it for him, but he said all the time he was riding the tractor and milking and repairing the fence, he liked to think of me waking up and drinking the coffee he’d made for me.
Later on, when the weather was warmer, I thought I’d wake up with him and cook a breakfast—yeah, me, that never had anything but black coffee before. We would leave all the windows up at night, and the wind would blow through the apple trees and swoop all fresh and sweet over us while we slept.
In the morning, I’d eat plums and peaches while he had eggs and potatoes and sausages, maybe pancakes with melted butter and syrup or oatmeal. That was what I planned for later on, when the weather was warm. But for what was left of that winter, all I wanted was to slide into the warm place where he’d been sleeping all night, and it’d be like he hadn’t even left.
That winter, we didn’t know anybody. Oh, he knew some guys that repaired things, the way men do, and the guys in the bar, and once we went to that little white frame church down at the crossroads. A couple of times we went back to the bar for a beer and took Tanya and Sophie out to the diner afterwards, but you could tell Tanya thought I’d gone off with a hick, and the church folks obviously thought he was living with a whore, so we just took to staying home in the evenings. Sometimes I danced for him in the living room and peeled off my jeans and T-shirt, and we finished the six-pack and went to bed and made love.
But most of the time we just did like old married couples do, ate a little supper, read bits out of the newspaper to each other, watched some television, then went up to the bedroom that was like our little world in four walls, a place where I had everything I needed, and the rest of the house could have blown away in the wind, as long as our bedroom stayed there with us in it.
I loved that room. Even when he was out working, I stayed there a lot. It had this old wallpaper with faded pink stripes and big fat silver roses. Everything in it was big and solid, like it had been there forever. His mama and daddy’s highboy, where he kept his clothes and cleared out half the drawers for me, keeping the top drawers for himself because it was so wide and tall. When I stood on tip-toe, my arms stretched out like I was going to be crucified, I just touched the sides, and I never could see what was on the top.
He scattered the stuff from his pockets, his coins and pocket knife, bits of wire and pieces of paper, the things men have, on the marble-topped washstand over in the corner. It had a big white and gold bowl and a pitcher where he said his mother used to put lilacs in the summer, so I thought I would, too, when the yard was filled with forsythia, and snowballs, and azaleas and lilacs, irises and daffodils, things that go on forever. He said they were there waiting for me. I could just see the whole house filled with bouquets and every room smelling different when you walked through. I thought his grandma and his mama would be happy if they knew I was there taking care of him, the way I was learning to.
Then there was the bed, the bed that was like our little home within a home, had a heavy-built headboard that rose almost to the ceiling, like an old building with carved columns and little angel heads coming half out of the wood. I felt so safe in that bed, like I was sailing to heaven in it. There was a feather bed over the mattress, just a big cotton bag of soft feathers you could sink in like clouds, and big fat feather pillows where I could almost sit up and hold him when he put his head on my breast, and I’d put my arm around him the way he liked me to.
After I got up, I always made the bed so it would be smooth and silky when I slid into it in the afternoon and got in again under the feather-stuffed comforter and the faded gray and white and pink quilt. I took a hot water bottle to bed with me, so I could sort of feel that same nice comforting feeling of having him in bed with me. That was the heart of our life together, being there in that bed and holding each other.
That day in late March the calendar said spring was coming, but it was one of those harsh raw days you get in early spring, with a fine cold rain. He’d been spending all the days out in the fields, sometimes worked in the dark to plant his seed before night came on. I’d give up waiting sometimes and leave his supper warm in the stove and go to bed. After he ate, he would stand under the hot shower for long minutes to get the chill out of him before he went to sleep. He never got in bed cold because he knew how much I liked to be warm. I remember waking up that night when he came to bed because I’d been shivering a little even under the comforter, and then I felt all that warmth and safety getting in with me, and I knew I’d be able to sleep, so you see it was such a surprise that early morning when I woke up and everything felt so cold and quiet, and he was dead right there in the bed. He was dead. I was so cold my teeth were chattering. I couldn’t stop shivering. It was the first time I knew how cold it would get again, when he was gone.
Long past the time I knew how cold he was, I kept touching him, just a little. I touched his shoulder and shook him gently, whispered I’d like some hot tea, some buttered toast, a tub of steaming water run ready for me to slip into in that old clawfooted bathtub, but he wasn’t there for me. He hadn’t slept curled around me for hours, was over on the far side of the bed curled away from me, and the sheets were cold all around him, and the coldness was even reaching over to my side of the bed.
So much had happened while I was sleeping. How can the world end and you don’t even wake up? How didn’t I know so I could have stopped it from happening? I felt like I had failed, hadn’t done my share, hadn’t done what I should have been able to do, but when I think about how he always took care of me, I think I understand.
The way I figure it must have happened, he must have pulled away when he felt it coming. Don’t you think that was the way it would be? He used to say to me, “I don’t even want the wind to blow too hard on you.” He must have felt his heart stopping and pulled away from me then, got all the way over on the other side of the bed so I wouldn’t wake up, so his chill wouldn’t wake me up too soon.
That’s why I didn’t wake up with him curled around me, the way we always slept, almost like we’d grown together, like that pair of trees out there in the garden, one trunk grown around the other until you’d think they were just one tree.
That was why, don’t you see? Don’t you see that must have been the way it happened? That’s why he pulled away. So I wouldn’t get cold any sooner than I had to. Because he loved me so. Because he loved me.