Saturday, March 5, 2016

Savvy Saturday: When Roses Wept by Keith Wayne McCoy

My father was on a submarine somewhere in the Pacific that summer of 1943. A child of six, I understood only that Daddy was far away saving the whole world from a bad man with a silly moustache. My younger brother and I missed his broad shoulders which we heartily rode and the flighty rough-housing which had often raised objections from our mother, disturbed by the racket. Though he was the ultimate hero in our adoring eyes, we sensed her despair and, so, allowed the lingering hugs and kisses. She was canning green beans in pretty blue jars one afternoon when she saw a plume of dust unfurling down our country road. She began crying as she watched two uniformed men step from their car. At the door, she collapsed and began screaming and even at my young age, I recognized the remote regard with which the men patiently held an envelope down to her. They had obviously done this many times before.

She grasped our little bodies and though we wept to see her weep, startled to suddenly be children without the presence of a coherent adult, we knew that our father would not lift us again or bring a hand to his face in mock astonishment and utter, “Did you make this?” Our grandparents, aunts, and uncles arrived and fell into each other’s arms and we were equally thunderstruck at their unadulterated lack of decorum. Death had descended sinisterly over our big house, insinuating itself down halls, wrapping around balusters, and whispering through screened windows and doors, saturating the very fabric of our furniture and clothes.

At the funeral, she made us kneel and kiss the flag-draped coffin as she rested her head against it. Other adults urged her up but she remained steadfast. I wanted to see my Daddy but was tersely told by a grandfather that I should be strong and remember him when alive as he had died a violent death and mustn’t be seen by anyone.

In the midst of the upheaval, I tossed and turned one night, sweating in my upstairs bedroom and woke my little brother to prepare a makeshift bed for us on the floor before the screen door of the entrance hall. A great fan blew luxuriously warm night air over us.

I had just dozed when I was aware of a presence. Whether by sound or supernatural nudge, I opened my eyes to see a very large man open and step through the screen door, careful not to let it bang behind him. The intruder headed with stealthy intent for the staircase and had just wrapped a massive hand around the newel post when he saw us in the floor. Miraculously, I pretended sleep though a scream threatened to flare from my throat. He slowly stepped backwards without turning, and tiptoeing, left exactly as he had entered. I lay still for several interminable minutes, shivering, then rose to shut the main door and deadlock it despite the heat. I did not tell my mother of the incident as she was still very much a fragile adult, and I did not want yet another torment to press on her. I would confront this newest trial on my own. I began locking the doors before bed each night and though she never questioned my rationale, I was perplexed to hear her softly unlatching the front screen door each night when she thought my brother and I slept. In the morning, the door was always mindfully latched. Furthermore, the giant floor fan was moved into our upstairs bedroom.

I thought she was once again grieving heavily a few nights later when I heard her in the downstairs bathroom moaning. I padded to the door and softly asked if she wanted to hold me tight. This time she answered negatively and gasped raggedly. She agonized and the pain seemed to overwhelm her vocal chords as pitiful, hissing cries emanated from beyond the door. I offered to call a grandparent but she suddenly regained her voice and sternly told me to go back to bed. I stood unable to listen because of my thundering heartbeat, and she wickedly screamed at me to go upstairs. I dutifully climbed the risers and slipped under the sheet, straining to hear.

The bathroom door creaked open and I heard her stagger into the pantry and rummage, sobbing and groaning. When I heard the screen door object, I rose and went to the window. She walked heavily to the garden shed and emerged with a spade though I could not tell that which she held in her other hand. I could see the excruciating pain in her gait and when she stopped before the rose bush and lifted a foot to press down on the spade, her tightly restrained whimper was unbearable to me. The crickets chirped their somnolent song as she dug and finally dropped the object into the hole. She dropped to her hands and knees and scooped at the earth.

The next morning, she did not rise to prepare our breakfast but slept obliviously until noon. Her eyes were circled and her voice spent when she asked us if we knew just how much she loved us. We nodded compliantly and stayed inside to minister her as she languished on the sofa, sobbing and staring at some invisible object in the ceiling corner. Attentive but scared, I debated calling an elder yet feared her reproach as she had insisted throughout the day that her illness was a private matter between the three of us that no adult should be made aware. She smiled weakly when she assured us that we were much too strong to give in to despair and our little circle would never be broken. I felt a certain sense of superiority in the knowledge that we constituted her entire being and felt the unmistakable stirrings of what was surely manhood in our household.

But soon a giant trespassed into our blissful existence and knocked me from my soaring climb to the top of the world of man. He was the giant in the night I had seen and dreamed of since first laying eyes on him from the floor of the foyer. The flat-footed fool never had to fight as my father had and, fairly or unfairly, never had a chance of approaching any level of respect in my eyes. His sole objective seemed to be to countermand my importance to my mother and brother and, quite simply, to rigidly reinforce the fact that I was a mere child. When he kissed my mother and held her hand, I wished to spit upon him or, even worse, strangle him. After they married, I threw a cast-iron doorstop through the window when my mother suggested my baby brother and I call the intruder “Daddy”. I persuaded my brother to call him by his first name, never letting him forget through stories, real and imagined, the heroic nature of our father. Yet I could never quite forgive nor forget the fact that he nevertheless allowed the man to become an authority figure.

Adolescence brought all hope of mutual tolerance to an incontrovertible end, and hate became my intimate companion. We were growling dogs circling each other. My mother was forever on the fence regarding our relationship, and once she realized her efforts were fruitless, she divided her loyalty and love into an unhealthy balance between the two of us. When friction escalated to shouts and sometimes physical confrontation, she simply tended her prized rose bush with a dogged determination. Pruning, dead-heading, and daily waterings from a magic bucket were her luxury chores. Neighbors and even townsfolk came to admire the dazzling, perfectly-shaped explosions of pink throughout the summer. She was photographed more than once for the local newspaper standing before her masterpiece and enigmatically refused to allow any cuttings. When the petals wept to the ground in late summer, my mother wept as well on her knees among them with her face in her hands, despondent in some curious way that the males in her life failed to interpret. When the bush died, she was inconsolable for weeks.

Many years after my mother and stepfather slept in the ground next to each other and I finally realized my interrupted quest for the full blessings of a family by becoming husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, an old childhood friend came to me with an ancient riddle. A swimming pool was being dug at the old homestead and an encrusted jar rolled eerily from the shovel of a backhoe to the feet of an onlooking little girl. Presented to me after being cleaned and wiped to a gleam, already marveled at by so many at the worksite, was a blue Ball jar like those from far memory but containing a tiny skull and clearly articulated skeleton: the mystery of a brother or sister and a father’s child finally given birth in another century.

Keith Wayne McCoy majored in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Indiana. He has won scholarships to several writing conferences and studied under such luminaries as John Hawkes, Bob Shacochis, Amy Hempel, and Sigrid Nunez. His novel "The Travelers" was a quarter-finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. In addition to writing, Mr. McCoy is a world-class collector of furniture and memorabilia from the 1930s luxury liner QUEEN MARY. He lives in southern Illinois. Visit his blog here.

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