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.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Learning To Speak -- a story (i)

Two children. Not long ago, one of them was killed. 

This is a story about grief and children. Once upon a time I had a student in class who, that semester, lost a sibling. His mother made her tormenting grief very public, and I couldn't help thinking about what kind of reaction--several months down the line--her voluble grief had on him, the survivor. 

"Learning the Speak" is a story about the survivor--the survivors, I guess I should say. It's set here, with local history, and features a high school administrator. 

"Learning to Speak" has always been one of my favorite stories. 

~   *   ~   *   ~

“It’s a funny thing that I never heard about all those people being killed,” Vernon said. He was reading the newspaper while his daughter picked up the sandwich plates and stacked the tumblers according to the arrangement: whenever her mother was out somewhere, one of them made supper and the other cleaned up the dishes. 

“Twenty-five people killed right in this county in 1895, and I never heard a word about it. You read this, Karin?”

“It’s not funny,” she said.

“I don’t mean it’s funny--I mean it’s odd. I was born right here in Sioux County.” He flopped the paper in half and put a finger in the crease. “Somewhere along the line I should have heard the story. I don’t care how long ago it happened.” Karin pulled a dish towel from beneath the sink and flipped it over her shoulder. “Things just get forgotten eventually. That’s the way it should be. Finally they just get buried.”

Karin enjoyed stopping conversation like that, he thought, but he let it pass. “You’d think there’d be a monument around here somewhere. Something. My goodness--twenty-five people.” He put down the paper and blew on his coffee.

“You were never in a tornado, were you?” she said.

From behind, he saw her shoulders tighten when she scrubbed the frying pan Angie had left unwashed after breakfast. “I’ve seen what kind of damage they’ve done,” he said. “I’ve been around within hours--”

“I mean really in one?” She straightened her shoulders and stood still, her back to him.

“Not really in one,” he said, “not like Dorothy and Toto--”

“I’d like to see one once.” She was staring out at the horizon, looking out the window over the sink.

They had bought the house for the window to the west, because Angie had said she had to have a view when she washed dishes. She liked the finished basement and the cedar-lined closet in the extra bedroom, but it was the big window above the sink that had sold her, the window and the view of the prairie stretching westward to the sunset.

“I think it would be neat to have one blow the roof right off our house,” Karin said. “They do that.”

“Oh, really?”

“And I’d like mother to be gone. I’d like our whole roof picked right up and flung out into the street.” She kept her hands beneath her in the dishwater. “Turn the whole place into a doll’s house. No roof. And then mother comes home and finds us there--you and me--kicking through all the junk.”

Vernon dropped the paper on the unwiped table and stood. “Anybody ever tell you you’ve got strange dreams?” he said. He walked to the dining room window and looked west over the back yard, where Karin was staring. A roll of thunderheads, thick as mushroom clouds standing shoulder to shoulder, rose from the horizon. Big birds, hawks probably, hung in the air, facing the stiff east wind like kites. “Keep your hat on Missie,” he said. “It’s that time of year, all right.”

“I’m only kidding,” she said. “You know I’m kidding, Dad.”

Karin was little when they bought the house, little enough to fit in the bathroom sink. Somewhere he had a picture of that, her fat little body, perfectly right-angled, legs flat-out in front of her, tucked in the bathroom sink. Lisa was older, maybe three or four years old. Lisa had been the oldest, sixteen when she’d been killed. Sweet sixteen is the way he always thought about it. That was two years ago already, he remembered, two years that had just blown by. Karin was fourteen when it happened--just old enough to understand it all too well, it seemed. Her only sister’s death had aged Karin; there was no doubt about that. Even her teachers had said that part of Karin’s problem was lack of friends. “She’s just so mature,” her English teacher had told him once in the teacher’s lounge, as if it were, for her father, a fact to be proud of.

To be continued.

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