This is a chapter from a novel in progress. ©2020 Patti Witten, all rights reserved
This is a chapter from a novel in progress. ©2020 Patti Witten, all rights reserved
This is an excerpt from Lowlands, a novel in progress.
What was this AA thing about guilt and forgiveness, the mysterious transformation from resentment and fear to serenity and amends? Robert had taught the Big Book’s line on it to his sponsees, but it still confounded him. He could not figure it out for himself, for Maylin and Cynthia. Jessica, Leah. Much less with Phil, who’d left Maylin to drown.
The fury he’d felt during his failed attempt to confront Phil just days before had calmed, and after the meeting, he went back to the hospital. This time, he parked and sat in the truck with the window down, and he noticed everything: the dusk, the daytime birds going to roost in the trees, and the night insects winding up. And he thought about her. How free he was to open the door and go where he wanted while Maylin had drowned in Phil’s truck.
The automatic doors sighed open for him and he stepped into the lobby. A woman behind the curved prow of the reception desk did not look up, but a uniformed security guard standing against the wall gazed at him.
“Can I help you?” the woman said.
Robert leaned on the tall counter and asked for Phil Maser’s room number. She looked it up, told him, and warned that visiting ended soon.
He moved down the chilly corridor in his stained T-shirt, work boots, and jeans, feeling like a walking stump, a dumb, handless animal, left knee catching and belt cutting into his belly. Feeling old because Phil and Maylin were so young.
An elevator, a hallway. He passed a corral of workstations where nurses talked and typed, faces lit by blue screens. Then he was at the door.
Phil lay under a sheet in the high hospital bed, eyes closed. A fluorescent light behind his head threw shadows on his face. Dark bruises ringed his eyes and crossed the bridge of his nose. His beard had grown out, and his hair was unwashed. One arm was wrapped in a bulky bandage from fingers to elbow. His other arm was bare, scratched and bruised, an IV taped to the back of his hand.
Robert knocked once on the doorframe. “Can I come in?”
Phil roused and blinked. “Oh, it’s you. Yeah.”
The bed buzzed and levitated Phil’s upper body, like a boat lift. He looked at Robert, his glassy eyes and expression slack with narcotics.
Robert sat in the chair beside the bed, knees shaking, his hands cold, and forced out the words he should say and not the other things — you were drunk, why did you do it, couldn’t you save her?
“I’m sorry this happened. Just, sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. Are you OK?”
Robert folded, sobbed. When he regained control he looked up at Phil, a perfect rendering of the cartoon Coyote after an explosion. He wanted to laugh.
“You look terrible, man!”
“So do you.” Phil tried to smile.
Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Robert stood up. “Take care,” was all he could think to say.
On the way home, he leaned out the window into the humid night wind and listened to the truck’s low-pitched Tuvan throat song harmonizing with the doppler rise and fall of insects in the ditches and hovering woods. This time, when he got home, he would tell Cynthia about seeing Phil and the regret he’d felt during the meeting — not about his secret shame, that day with Jessica and what happened to Maylin. Not that. He wanted her to understand and let him back into her heart.
Suddenly, a deer flashed at the side of the road and leaped in front of the truck, missing it by inches. The truck idled at an angle in the middle of the deserted road, headlights staring. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and wept again, surprised that there was more inside him. The pain of weeping was terrible, as bad as any bone he’d ever broken.
He thought, this is defeat, a surrender I never knew I could feel. Now that it was out, he was afraid it would never stop, and it would carry him to the end of the world.
He pulled up the hem of his T-shirt to wipe his face. The dash lights glowed and crickets sang their stream of consciousness from every direction. An eggshell moon stood above the tree line in the east.
Out there in the dark along a hedgerow, the lucky deer zig-zagged on its impossibly thin legs, big-eyed and alert for the kind of danger it could understand, with just two strategies to face it — run, or keep perfectly still.
© Patti Witten, all rights reserved
A writing challenge on the prompt “ritual.”
. . .
The boy pulls on each boot as his father watches
he grabs his helmet by the strap
lifts it from the dirt where he dropped it
trudges through the barn’s shadowed maw where the ponies stand in cross-ties
and a thousand girls in jodhpurs adore them.
I prompt him at every step of the ritual tacking-up as he
swipes at the pony’s legs with a brush
broods at its refusal to lift a hoof for the pick
forgets where its bridle, saddle, and the stained pad are stored
although he has been taking lessons all summer.
Here’s what he thinks about riding
and his father’s nostalgia for horses —
He drops the saddle on the pony’s back
with the pommel facing backward.
. . .
© 2018 Patti Witten
photo / Patti Witten
Bringing In The Hay
It’s late July, the grass is above average tall, and if it ever stops raining the farmers will get a lot of hay in.
My neighbors to the north have a small farm. They are a young family who’ve grown up in the life of farming here in Dryden. Dana and Carol were high school sweethearts and now they are in their early thirties with three small children. Dana wants to have steers on his 80 acres—in fact, he wants to buy some of the adjoining 600—but that’s still on the wish list. For now, Dana hays the open fields every summer like he did with his father growing up. This summer he has a couple of horses in the fenced pasture closest to his house, the one where he kept a steer a few years ago. They’re here because another neighbor’s horses ate all the grass at her place, plus she broke her arm, so Dana stepped in. He’s been hauling water for them in a 100-gallon utility tank tied to a small trailer behind his four-wheeler, pumping it by hand into a trough.
Nine days ago, three-and-a-half inches of rain fell in just 45 minutes. The deluge caused major flash flooding in parts of the county. I had water in my basement, not from creek overflow but because the sump pumps could not keep up and the ground was already saturated. Last year, we had a 100-year drought. Seven months of far below average rainfall, from late spring through the fall. This year, corn and soybean rotted in the fields. The horses drink from a new pond that has filled a low spot in their pasture.
Three days ago, Dana mowed the field closest to my house with his twenty-year-old tractor. That’s not a bad age for a John Deere, having replaced a truly ancient one the year before. But since then Dana has been struggling to get the hay in before another round of thunderstorms and flood warnings. He started baling yesterday but every few minutes I heard the tractor motor drop to an idle because of some problem. He didn’t get very far, and despite the near-perfect weather, the tractor went silent well before sunset. This morning help arrived.
With Dana driving and the helper walking behind the baler hitched behind the tractor, they got it all done. Dana’s bales were a bit wonky, a little crazy-shaped. Some were curved into wide letter Us. Others were twisted like square slinky toys. I listened to them work from the top of a ladder where I was cleaning the gutters until I was chased down by hornets. I was stung three times and ran around the side of the house where I examined the welts on my arm and legs and watched the heavy blue thunderheads piled in the western sky. The wind switched and turned cold as inflow rushed to meet them.
At about four that afternoon, Dana and his two older kids worked fast to bring in the bales before the evening thunderstorms. They buzzed around the field loading 6-8 bales in the 4-wheeler’s trailer (minus water tank), ran them to the hay wagon, loaded the bales on the hay wagon, then rushed back to the field for more bales — wash, rinse, repeat. According to the weather radar, the storms heading our way were slow moving but intense, running in a line from southwest to northeast, from Corning to Ithaca. At 7 p.m. the dark sky was pierced by lightning and frequent thunder. The four-wheeler buzzed and voices shouted until the rain began.
My stomach was a twist of anxiety about these approaching storms, for a different reason. On my weather app, I looked at the huge clots of orange and red rain cores, trying to gauge if/when the deluge would hit. I had to do some talking to myself and slow breathing to calm down. I thought about the recent flood, knowing all too well that if we lost power the sump pump would not run. To prepare, I moved the cat’s litter box and the dehumidifier to what passes for high ground down there. There wasn’t anything else to move that hadn’t already been ruined in the previous flood. I ran the worst case scenario and felt my gut twist.
So I thought instead about Dana and his family. About the bales of hay in danger of being soaked and ruined, become worthless due to mold, making all that work for nothing. What must it be like to desire a farming life these days, even if it’s just a small place to raise your kids and keep goats and chickens? Maybe a few steers? Day jobs must fill the void. Everything must be deferred in favor of the farm and equipment, including needed renovations to the house, vacations away, new vehicles. Three kids under 12, the youngest less than a year old.
The storm caught up to us but fortunately just a glancing blow. No prolonged, drenching rain, no flood, no loss of power. Other people had flooded basements, ruined hay, no power, and stress. But not me, not this time.
Now it is near dusk and a cool breeze is pushing the storm south and east, away to other towns, other farms. I hope they got the hay in and under cover. I hope there won’t be more storms tonight. I hope we can adjust to the new normal of weather extremes and enjoy this beautiful part of the world while it still resembles what we grew up with.
Meanwhile, I’m watching the next line of storms heading this way in a line stretching from Detroit to Toronto. Sunset is lighting up the back of that storm line in the east with a diffuse, pink glow that slides into orange and golden yellow as I watch. A rainbow stretches up to the base of the cloud and receding rain so that all you see are two curved pillars touching the earth and a dome of color suspended between. Lightning arcs beneath it.
Sometimes the drama is behind you. Sometimes it is ahead.
© 2017 Patti Witten
Photos © Patti Witten | more photos at sway2this.com