Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Learning to Speak -- a story (conclusion)

"Learning to Speak" is not Karin's story; it's her father's story, the kind of story I was writing frequently when my own children were kids, trying to see into the future, trying to guess what it might be like. . .

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Vernon looked at the prairie fields, flat and colorless in the bursts of sharp light. Storms were different on the prairie than they had been in the suburbs. In the city there were so many people that you didn’t worry as much; it was as if the odds were thin when everywhere you looked there were people. Out here the whole town seemed to sit on the land like something unnatural, a mistake, like the clapboard towns in old TV westerns, no trees to hide behind, no hills to ward off the danger. Thunderheads came in like regular visitors; storms had minds and tempers.

He’d come back to his home town, to the plains, because on the prairie, people were closer to God somehow. That’s what he told himself.

He heard the siren behind him, from the center of town, its flat-pitched moan holding steady in warning. Still seated, he looked out once more, as if there were something to see in the bitter sky.

“Karin,” he said, but he heard no one answer. He waited momentarily. It would be strange, the two of them in that fruit cellar alone, because it wasn’t like the old days anymore. It wasn’t as if she needed protection, needed a father to hold her on his lap.

He went downstairs slowly, one hand up on the wall in the semi-darkness. He called her again, almost quietly, but heard no voice. The dining room was dark, and he heard no television voices from the den.

“Karin?” he said, but she was gone.

He walked back to the kitchen, but no one was there. Downstairs, the warning siren was louder and more shrill. He looked down the basement stairwell to see if there were any lights, but there were none. She had to be outside.

He circled up through the kitchen and left out the front door. The wind softened into a calm that barely disturbed the maples. A few light breezes like cold slaps, quick and short, brushed by him, the only motion in the air. The streets were deserted now. He ran to the curb and looked one way, then the other, but the only thing moving was the police car a block east and south, its lights flashing steady red echoes off the white sides of houses that stood in the gaps between their place and Main Street.

He remembered that she wouldn’t be out front, out to the east. She would be in the backyard watching the sky. He ran up the sidewalk that curled around the north edge of the house and stopped at the far corner, looking for a pillar of darkness against the strange green air.

“Karin,” he said, louder.

He had talked to Benson, the school psychologist, about all of it once himself. “There are professionals who say you’ve got to give grieving parents five whole years to unscramble their lives,” Benson had said. “I’ve heard that said. You shouldn’t try to say anything to them for at least five years.”

He hadn’t asked him about siblings.

Somewhere it was written, he remembered, “Faith,” or so it echoed in his head, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” New Testament, he said to himself, New Testament.

He found her sitting in the backyard grass, her legs bent beneath her, her robe laid smoothly over her lap, watching the sky, as if there were stunt pilots moving playfully back and forth before her.

“Karin, it’s dark, for pity sake. Even if one comes, you’re not going to be able to see it at night.” He put one knee down next to hear and watched the sky.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said.

Lightning played behind the clouds like July sparklers.

“It’s something, isn’t it--how calm it got all of a sudden?” She never took her eyes off the storm.

“Perfect weather for it,” he said.

“Sometimes it takes two-by-fours and runs them like long spears through metal barrels. You believe that?”

“It’s happened.” He put down the other knee and sat on his legs beside her. “You know we ought to be in the basement. I’m not particularly interested in some wild trip to Oz.”

“I’ve never seen a tornado,” she said. “I can get down there if I have to.”

The sky turned a dim rust color; layers of clouds, black against gray, rushed as if driven along above them, but the open backyard seemed somehow protected by an odd, quilted calm.

“Your mother would be wild, you know that?--both of us hanging around out here?” he said. “Your mother’d chew me out but good for such foolishness.”

But she sat there gazing into the night sky.

“This is almost suicidal, Karin,” he said. “We could get arrested.”

“I want to sit right here till it comes,” she said. “I want to see it coming--this big black funnel. I want to stand here and watch it come--”

“It’s nothing to play with, honey,” he said. “We better get inside--”

Lights burned in the neighbor’s house, but the world seemed almost dead otherwise.

“You’re sick of it too, aren’t you?” Karin said. “You’re mad at her just like I am for always having to talk about it. That’s why we’re not in the basement. That’s why you never yell at me. You don’t like it either--how she talks.” She looked at him without turning to face him.

He pulled himself down to her completely, felt the cool grass beneath his fingers. “She’s my wife, Karin. I love her.” He covered her open hand with his.

“But you hate it too--the way she’s got to talk about it all the time--on and on, over and over. You do, don’t you?” Her face looked sturdy, her eyes aggressive. She was fighting him for an answer.

“I don’t know what I think,” he said. “Your mother’s got her way of dealing with it. We all got to find our ways, all of us.”

Karin combed through her hair with her fingers and bit back the tears. When it finally came, it was emphatic and unforgiving, her lips drawn like a line fence across her face. “I think she’s pure shit, Dad. I think what my mother is pure shit. I hate her.”

He waited in the eerie darkness, waited in silence, and finally, he let it pass. His father would have slapped him silly for saying that about his mother, but his father never lost a child, never had to look into Karin’s eyes.

She sat up, turned so her knees were beneath her, her thighs slightly apart, her hands down in her lap, trying to be strong, trying, he knew, to fight back tears.

Thunder started in a sly crackle, then slammed into the silence, but she sat there sternly, stiff as a tree, until slowly her hands rose and stretched over her eyes. Angie would have asked to be held at such a time, but Karin didn’t want to be touched. He could feel her own strength rise in the way his own heart was rushing.

In his fingers he felt the ground itself through the stubble grass. “Come on,” he said, “it’s all over now.” He tried to take her arm as he pulled up slowly from the ground.

But she pulled away from him. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” she said. “You heard what I said.”

“It’s over,” he told her. He put one hand up behind her neck. “You’re not going to see your tornado. Listen--” The sound of rain swept towards them, a battalion of tiny foot soldiers. The wind lifted her hair back from her face. “It’s over. Let’s go in.”

He saw rain coming like a sheet suddenly unveiled from the sky over the prairie fields west; in the flashes of lightning, he saw it blowing toward them steadily, easily, hanging in the sky.

“Your grandfather used to say that once the rains come, the tornado’s past. It’s like an ’all clear.’”

The wind returned as if suddenly unleashed.

The tears ran out finally and fully from her twisted face. She used the back of her fists to rub through her eyes. “I’m sorry, Dad,” she said. “I don’t know how to feel.”

Her shoulders felt so broad when he squeezed her, too broad for his youngest daughter. “It’s over,” he said. “There’ll be another time. Come on, your mother would kill us.”

They rushed through the opening volleys of a downpour his father would have called a gully-washer, a shower that came so fast that at the back door both of them felt the water down their cheeks and through their hair.

“I’ll talk to her, Karin,” her father said when they both stood wiping their feet in the back hall. “She should hear what we have to say.”


Later, together on the couch in dry clothes, they heard the news that a tornado had leveled a barn and a grain bin no more than thirty miles west, straight west, nowhere near Sheldon.

They were sitting there together when Angie came home.

“I’m sorry I was gone,” she said. “You don’t know how scared I was away from you two. Is everything okay here?”

He took his wife’s hand when she stood there next to them, just took her hand, first, and let the silence fill in around them.

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