Vinita Hampton Wright, page 1
Vinita Hampton Wright
To every family
forced to relinquish
the land called home.
The Story of the Story
About the Author
Other Books by Vinita Hampton Wright
About the Publisher
Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand
All the ways that God would lead us to that blessed promised land;
But he guides us with his eye, and we’ll follow till we die,
For we’ll understand it better by and by.
By and by, when the morning comes, when the saints of God are gathered home,
We’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome, for we’ll understand it better by and by.
—“When the Morning Comes”
In Beulah, Iowa, widow women all over town garden in the clothes of deceased husbands. From a distance, they often look like small-framed men. They keep their husbands’ clothes because it’s wasteful to throw away hats and shirts that still have wear in them. They wear the clothes in memory of the men they have survived, even after the scent of them has been laundered away.
It was a full year after her husband’s death before Rita Barnes could wear his clothes. Nearly ten years have passed since Taylor died, and Rita is stretched out on their double bed this morning, naked, because it was humid last night and because she’s sixty-six and does what she pleases. She is mentally searching her pantry for cream-style corn, because her son Mack is coming home from the mental hospital today, and his wife Jodie is cooking a nice dinner for him, and a nice dinner for the Barneses always includes Rita’s corn casserole. She’s also promised chicken and homemade noodles. It will take some time to make the noodles, so maybe she should haul her bones off the bed now.
She stops at the bathroom, rinses her face, combs her hair, and puts in her dentures. In ten minutes she is at the kitchen table, taking some raisin toast with her coffee along with vitamins. The automatic coffeemaker that Mack and Jodie got her for Christmas five years ago is possibly one of the best gifts of her lifetime. She can go smoothly into her day, not even having to count scoops of coffee but leaving the waking-up process to the drinking itself.
By ten-thirty, the noodles are made and ready to throw in with the chicken, and Rita’s house is cleaner than it needs to be. The farmhouse, where Mack’s family now lives, is still the family center, just as it was when Rita and Taylor lived there. It turns out that Rita’s status as mother of the family was not the main reason her home was the hub all those years. The house itself, large and functional and not very beautiful, is what compels them all to congregate. Rita figured that out a year or so after Taylor’s passing, when she moved to town and a smaller place. The kids stop by every day, but they don’t circle around and land at her little house in town the way they always did at the farm. She doesn’t mind that as much as she expected. It’s been nice to have privacy, or at least what passes for privacy in Beulah.
On her way out the door to make what she has come to call her “P&P run”—the nearly daily trip to the post office and pharmacy—she grabs two packages of heat-and-serve dinner rolls from the top of the fridge. They’re for the party tonight. Jodie likes to have everything on hand several hours ahead of time. The trip out to the farm, also, is a daily event for Rita.
But her day goes south when she turns the ignition key. The engine whines but won’t turn over—for the third time this week. She huffs at the little car and tries again. She tries six times and then quits for a minute, feeling warm from the sun that surrounds her in the driveway.
Amos from next door comes out and stands in his drive just a few yards away. He puts his hands on his hips, which always looks funny when Amos does it, although Rita can’t figure out why.
“Givin’ you trouble again,” he says, nodding toward the front end of the car.
“Of course. On a day when I really need to go somewhere.”
“You’re always needing to go somewhere.” Amos smiles a little. He’s so old and wrinkled that it looks like a wince.
“But some days it’s not that important. Mack’ll be home this evening.”
“Will he? Well, that’s just wonderful. I’m sure you’re all happy about that.”
“Yes, we are.” She turns the key again and listens to the engine strain but not start.
“How old’s this car?”
“Nearly eleven years. Taylor bought it for me just a few months before he died.”
Amos looks impressed. “That’s a real long time for a car to run without a lot of trouble.”
“I know. Shouldn’t complain, I guess.”
“Have Tom Longman look at it.”
“I probably should.” She tries one more time, and the Ford comes to life grumpily. She raises her eyebrows at Amos. “Now that it’s started, I better do all the running around I need to.”
Mack’s coming home. This is the thought she woke up with, and she’s come around to it again at least twenty times. When her son’s name flickers across her mind, something tugs at Rita from inside. It’s a sensation that has visited her often since the first time her first child moved in the womb. During pregnancy, from the core of Rita’s body would come a soft stirring—an echo, really, of the actual movement—and her whole self would huddle around that feeling, because every nerve ending seemed to understand that Rita was destined forever to have a center to her life that wasn’t even her life. She and Taylor Barnes made a little baby way back when, and Rita hasn’t for a day or an hour since felt that she is the focus of her own life. Over the years, as her children have grown up and faced the world, that slight echo in her belly has become sharper and stronger, and thus Rita has continued to respond to the tug in ways only a mother can. Her two children, both sons, grew up, and now one is dead and the other is within a short walk of death. They had children of their own. But still, just the thought of either name—Mack or Alex—reaches into Rita’s belly and hooks in, as if there are special sockets in her soul that only her children can fit. Rita notices the yellowing locust branches sigh and sway in May Downer’s yard as she drives by, and she thinks of Mack, her firstborn, now forty-three, arriving home from the hospital, and her old womb fills up with echoes.
She leaves the engine running when she stops for the mail and then walks three doors down to the grocery store to pick up extra margarine, in such a rush she hardly says hi to Bud at the register. She parks again at the pharmacy, on the other side of the square, picks up one medication for herself and one for a ne
“You in a hurry?” Her daughter-in-law, Jodie, looks over Rita’s shoulder to the driveway and idling car as Rita walks in the kitchen door with the dinner rolls.
“Starter’s acting up. I’m not sure it will start if I shut it off.”
“Better have Tom look at it.” There was a time when Mack took care of mechanical matters in the family. But at some point Rita’s Ford Escort dropped from his list of responsibilities. Rita isn’t sure if Mack’s refusal to deal with her car comes from frustration with the car or his overall tiredness and inability to deal with things.
“All I need right now, car trouble.”
“Time to get another car.”
Rita makes a face, and Jodie knows she’s making a face and doesn’t even look up. “You can’t drive that little heap forever.”
“I don’t know why they make cars to fall apart like that.”
“So they can sell you more cars.”
Rita breathes easily again only after she has made her pharmacy delivery and is back home. Another little victory. But she’ll have to see Tom. Of course, Tom will shake his head like always and give her ten reasons she should just buy another car. She has run out of support when it comes to this particular loyalty.
Lunch consists of cantaloupe and leftover macaroni and cheese. It doesn’t feel wrong anymore that she doesn’t spend most of her day in the kitchen, keeping husband, kids, in-laws, grandkids, and farmhands fed. Her days and hours are no longer tied to the rhythms of crops and livestock. And when she cleans house, it actually stays dust-free for a couple of days. Out on the farm, she dusted only right before company came. Oh, she’d scrubbed things down regularly. But dirty and dusty were not the same when she lived in the middle of cultivated fields.
At three in the afternoon, she comes to a stopping point and goes to the bedroom to close her eyes for a while. She’s never been a napper, but maybe the stress of getting prepared for Mack’s arrival has taken her energy today. She lies down, then suddenly she’s opening her eyes and the angle of sunlight in the room tells her that nearly two hours have passed.
She tosses off the afghan and lies on her back, studying the tiny cobwebs that have collected around the ceiling light. She has been alone in this bed for years now, and her sleep has come to fill its entire breadth and length. It took several weeks after Taylor’s passing for her to so much as venture a foot across the middle to rest in his space. She lay on her half and looked across to that emptiness as though it were another country.
That was back when this bed was still in the farmhouse. It was bad enough that everything outside—the buildings and machinery, the footpaths worn between places—spoke her husband’s name like a chant. The whole place bore his signature and was so full of his presence that she couldn’t bear to walk outdoors long enough to carry out garbage or feed the dogs. Indoors was almost as bad. Her sons insisted on helping her clean out closets and dressers and medicine cabinets. While she hated to lay eyes on the backyard fence Taylor had built, removing more intimate things such as his razor and socks did her a worse violence. Her sons forgot the closet on the back porch, and Rita didn’t remind them. It was filled with boots and gloves, shirts and hats—parts of Taylor’s uniform for his long hours in the fields and sheds. Later, she padlocked the closet, knowing every item in it, and took comfort in knowing that whenever she needed to she could open it and clutch the fabrics and breathe in once again her husband’s scent.
The farm, as it was then, is long since gone. Thank God, the family managed to hang on to the house and the five acres right around it. And they’d kept the five down along the creek, where the original homestead had been and where the stone house still sets. With Mack’s family in the farmhouse now, it is still part of home for Rita, even though she lives in town, in a small house holding fewer things. But in some ways her life has expanded. Now she sleeps across her marriage bed diagonally, taking up the whole space with no guilt at all and only twinges of sadness from time to time. A part of her is always in touch with Taylor—knowing how old he would be or what he would think of a particular piece of news or how much he would enjoy hearing his granddaughter sing. A very deep part of Rita will track with Taylor Barnes through eternity itself. But Rita has continued to exist and even learned how to live alone—not an easy lesson.
And she wears Taylor’s shirts and hats when she gardens. She always took care to buy the best work shirts for him, and they’ve lasted well and fit her fine.
She puts on nice clothes now for Mack’s party, then sits in the breakfast nook and sips iced tea. Her Bible and a little notebook lie on the windowsill. This morning her prayers included several people. Jimmy Benson is scheduled for surgery Wednesday morning; Barb Hoffman is due for more tests sometime this week; Reverend Maynor is filling in for the pastor in Sigourney all this week; and the Walleys are traveling to Seattle to see the newest grandbaby. All of these names are written down in her small wire-bound notebook. They look as matter-of-fact as a shopping list. The name that is always there, in the way milk or bread starts off every list of groceries, is Mack’s name. Her eldest boy. There are no words in the whole universe that she hasn’t prayed for him at one time or another.
Now she looks out the window at her little bit of yard, here in town where all things are smaller and easier to deal with. She says a prayer that the car will start, get her to the party and back. She also says her son’s name, softly. Her insides move, and she closes her eyes against memories both horrible and sweet.
If Kenzie Barnes stares at Jesus long enough, his eyes will shift slightly and rest on her. Although he stands at a garden door, hand raised to knock, his body is sideways just enough that his glance can take her in.
Kenzie has continued this spiritual practice for nearly two weeks. It began by accident; she got tired one afternoon, and her mind wandered while her stare fixed absently on the picture that hangs on the north wall of the church sanctuary. The moving eyes suddenly brought her around. She was alone in the church, and the afternoon light was moving like some special effect over the white walls. To have Jesus in the picture suddenly look at her wasn’t frightening at all. There isn’t a safer place in the world she could be than here at the prayer rail of First Baptist. So if Jesus moved his eyes, then it was a good thing. It had made her cry to receive such a special affirmation from the Lord. But what she hadn’t expected was that it would happen more than once. Staring at Jesus as he stands at the garden door has become part of her devotion. He doesn’t look at her every time, but the devotion itself is enough to shore up Kenzie’s soul for another evening at home.
She’s also discovered that when she closes her eyes and concentrates really hard and asks the Holy Spirit’s presence, she will seem to float. Sometimes it feels as if she is leaving her own body. This was scary at first, but she knew that Jesus would not allow anything freaky to happen. So she does the two things now, the gazing upon Jesus’s picture and the concentrating with her eyes closed.
She has floated in the Spirit for about five minutes today. During that time she praised God and asked to be made worthy of Jesus’s name. She has stared at Jesus a long time, but his eyes haven’t moved this afternoon. It is five-thirty, close to suppertime, so Kenzie stands up from the railing and tells Jesus good-bye. After making sure the door locks behind her, she descends the several cement steps and hops onto her bicycle, feeling the need to hurry home. The sun was out bright today, but thin clouds have spread across the sky during the past hour, making the light vague and distant.
The bicycle squeaks in the cool air of September. Quiet fills the countryside except for the constant breath of wind through the cornstalks that rise on either side of the road. This time of year, not far
She pumps up the speed, feeling pursued. She knows that there’s nothing behind her on the road and nothing in the surrounding fields other than mice and moles about their business. But she senses something in the air that means her harm—not only her, but her brother and mother and father and grandma. This feeling has plagued her for weeks, disturbing her so much that she’s started the daily habit of praying at the church in the couple of hours after school and before she’s expected home for supper.
The three people she knows who know much about spiritual things have said that prayer is the way to keep evil away. There aren’t elaborate formulas for it, just the Bible’s instructions to pray always and for everything you can think of. Reverend Darnelle told her this. So did Grandma and Mike Williamson, the youth pastor at First Baptist. But nobody in the family besides Grandma prays anymore, so Kenzie has taken up the task. She’s nearly fifteen and supposes that this is part of what it means to be older and to carry more burdens. She knows that when she was small, her parents and grandparents prayed for her. Now it’s her turn.
Though the church sanctuary in late afternoon has become a second home, the evening remains heavy with some unnamed threat, and Kenzie pedals over the graveled surface, the occasional bug hitting her face or jacket. Familiar fields grow arms and scowling faces as she races past breathing hard, the old bike sounding scared as it clatters up and down the hills. The exertion makes it impossible to sing, so mentally she goes through verses of “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.”