by Ned Rodriguez
(Originally Published in Journeys V)
Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
–William Shakespeare, Sonnet 92
It was early afternoon when he stepped down from the Greyhound onto the gravel apron across from the drive. The farmhouse sat on a rise about a quarter of a mile away silhouetted against the high Kansas sky. A large sycamore sat to the right in a recently plowed field, its thick, leafy branches, the only source of shade within miles. Before he began his walk, he kneaded and rubbed the knee and calf of his bad leg to alleviate the cramp caused by the long bus ride. Small puffs of dust kicked up from the heels and toes of his scuffed brown brogues as he began to limp up the rutted drive to the house where he had spent his childhood. A worn knapsack sagged over the back of his tired brown suit coat. His hair, a recently cut sandy blond, was covered by a battered grey fedora. He leaned heavily on an old, gnarled oak branch he was using as a walking stick. Short and slight, he looked older than his thirty years. An ancient guitar case hung loosely in his right hand, moving in time to the gentle rhythm of his stuttered gait.
He passed an old, rusting ’49 Chevy pickup parked beside the colorless, two-story farmhouse as he approached the wraparound porch. His brother-in-law, Mort, dressed in sweat soaked chambray shirt and jeans sat on the glider by the open front door. He was a tall, lean man in his forties. His salt and pepper hair, matted with the ring of a recently worn hat, was cut short with no sideburns. There were vestiges of dried sweat on the forehead and temples of his long, lined face. He held a tall, sweating glass of sweet tea in his calloused hand. Eddie could just hear Clara’s voice from inside the house singing one of her favorite hymns.
“Been a while.” Mort didn’t blink when he saw him.
“Yeah, near six years,” Eddie’s voice was quiet and submissive. “That sweet tea?”
“Clara, you best get out here,” Mort called out over his shoulder into the house, ”… and bring another tea. Edward’s come to visit,” he added as he turned back to Eddie with a quiet smile.
His sister, ten years older than he, came to the door, an old blue apron and a dark, formless house dress covering her small, stubby body. She wore her hair, the color of weathered wood, in a bun. Clara peered at him through the screen with that stern look that had been her essence as long as he could remember. Without saying a word, she disappeared back into the darkness of the house.
Eddie sat on the top stair. “I’m just passing through, Mort. I was hoping Clara might let me spend the night in the barn.”
“You know how your sister is, you’re gonna have to ask her your own self. Me, I kind of like having you around”
Clara came out with a small glass of tea, without ice. “You planning on being here long?” she asked dourly as she extended the tea toward him.
“I was just saying to Mort, I’d like to spend a night or two in the barn if you’ll let me.”
“Edward, Daddy left the farm to both of us. You can take your old room for as long as you want but remember, even if Mother’s passed, we still follow her rules.” The scowl that covered her face showed she hadn’t forgotten.
It had always been a strange house, Daddy and Mother, never Momma, never Father. He could still remember Daddy working in the fields or around the house, quiet but always having time for Clara and him. Daddy wasn’t a fun man, just a good man; a reliable man; an honest man. Mother, on the other hand, was fire and brimstone. The church was everything. And woe onto anyone she felt was a transgressor. Even the preacher couldn’t soften her. Then one day, Daddy stopped the tractor by the sycamore and just sat at the wheel until Eddie realized that something was wrong. By the time he got to him, Daddy was gone, and Mothers’ rules became the only rules. Strictly enforced. No drinking; grace before meals; family Bible readings in the evening; no “Devils Music”; altogether a joyless house. Clara was her Mother’s daughter alright. “I can do most of that, Clara, but I need to pick the guitar. It’s what keeps me going, what keeps me sane. I’ll stay in the barn, and play out there if that’s okay.”
“Suit yourself. As long as I don’t have to hear it. Supper is at five like always.” Her pursed lips formed a tight line as she went back into the house and began her housework again. This time without the singing.
“How did you come by that limp?” Mort stared off to the horizon as he spoke.
Eddie looked down at his leg, “I got that after the trial, just before they transferred me to State Prison. I was mad at everything that had happened and acted up. Some guard hit me across the knee with his night stick. Busted it up pretty bad. Taught me a lesson.”
“How was it at Lansing?”
Eddie paused before he answered, “Prison is never good, Mort. It’s never easy, but I kept my nose clean, kept to the rules, and they let me out on parole.”
“I wanted to visit, but Clara wouldn’t have been happy. She isn’t the most forgiving person in the world.” Mort shook his head. “We turned your Daddy’s tool room into a bunk house when we had a hired man. It’s comfortable out there. I use it every once in a while, when I need a little quiet.”
“Thanks, Mort. And don’t worry. I won’t cause any trouble, I’m going to try and get my thoughts together. Maybe I can make some sense of what happened. I just want to get on with my life.”
When they went in for supper, Clara had set Eddie’s place at the far end of table, away from Mort and her. She served the meatloaf, mashed potatoes and string beans boiled to a soft greyish green, on the blue and white Royal Danish, passing the filled plates first to Mort and then Eddie. Except for grace, during which she seemed to include everyone except Eddie, she remained silent and withdrawn during the entire meal.
“You ever going to talk to us, Clara,” Mort chided.
Her jaw clenched, she looked at Mort, “I am not. You two go on and talk or do whatever. I’m just eating.”
“Look, Clara,” Eddie began, “I’m not here to cause trouble. I just want to spend some time getting my life in order. I was telling Mort…”
“I don’t want to hear what you were telling Morten or what you have to say. Spend however long you want here, doing whatever you think you have to do, but I will not be a part of it.” Clara’s voice was like the cawing of the crows that roosted in the sycamore.
“Clara,” Mort began, but Clara snapped her head to glare at him.
The rest of the meal was held in a crushing silence. At the end, when she began to clear the table, Eddie stopped her, “I’m used to this Clara, I’ll do it.”
“I’ll do this, Edward. You never helped before, there’s no reason why you should start now,” Clara’s cold stare caused Eddie to stop as he shook his head slightly.
Mort placed his finger lightly on her lips, “It’s all right Clara. I can help Edward and that way, he and I can talk.”
She looked at the men before turning her back to Eddie and moving to the parlor, saying in a tight, cramped voice, “I’ll be in here. Reading the Book.”
Both men went out to the porch after cleaning up. Eddie sat on the rocker. The sun was hanging low in the west, the sky brilliant with colors ranging from soft, pastel yellows to an intense purple. The shadow of the sycamore was marching noiselessly toward them. Mort was sitting on the glider again, whittling on a small block of wood. Clara had taught him well, there was a sheet of newspaper on the floor between his feet to catch the shavings.
“What are you going to be doing when you leave, Edward?”
“I’m supposed to check into the parole office in Kansas City on Monday.” He answered quietly.
After a short time, Eddie looked at the other man, “Mort, was it Mother or Clara that turned me in?” His voice was almost a whisper.
“Sorry, Edward, I don’t know. But if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.” He looked at him with that same gentle but firm stare he always used.
Eddie knew that Mort wouldn’t tell him, just as he knew that if he asked, Clara would say that she had called the police. Whether it was true or not. Whatever the truth, he had been accused and convicted of stealing the money.
Every year, when the Department of Agriculture farm subsidy check came, Mother would take a portion and keep it at home in cash. That day, Mother and Clara had gone to town with Mort while Eddie remained at home. When they returned, Mother found that the money was missing and that Eddie had gone to Salina to “hang around with his no account friends”.
Actually, Eddie had gone to Salina for an audition with R. T. Davis. After his band’s lead guitarist, Lincoln Boggs, suffered a fatal overdose, R T was desperate for someone good enough to take his place because he had a recording date in Denver in just two days. R T was in Salina visiting his family when he put out the call to the union for a possible replacement. Eddie went as soon as he heard the news from his old teacher. R T had liked what he heard and hired him. Eddie was supposed to go home, pack and meet the band in Denver the next morning for the recording session. Eddie was hyped. He was on his way to the big time. When he returned home, the deputies were waiting. No one, family or cops, would believe him when he denied doing it. After they arrested him, they found the guitar in his car, and he couldn’t prove where he got the money to buy it. The 1956 Les Paul Special had cost him the five grand he had spent years saving for in secret. He was supposed to be at the studio the next morning for his big break. Instead, he went to jail and didn’t breathe free air again until this morning.
Eddie stood up and leaned against the railing, “Mort, I came all the way back to Phillipsburg to let you both know that I’m going back to playing in the clubs.” Eddie looked off into the distance as he gathered his words, the words he had practiced. “I know that Mother and Clara wouldn’t be happy until I gave it all up, the music, the clubs and everything. That they wanted me to go back to church,”
He paused before he continued, “I can’t do that. I met this man, an ex-con. He came to talk to a work shop I belonged to at Lansing. He lived a violent life, from boy to man, until he married some woman from China. Says he’s a Buddhist now, and it’s made him the man he didn’t know he could be, calm and happy. He told us that we can’t find peace unless we forgive and get on with our lives. Somehow, what he said made sense. Made me feel comforted sort of. I don’t know, but I believe him, so that’s why I came by.”
Mort turned toward him, his head canted slightly, “You really plan to forgive your Mother and Clara?”
“I’ve already done it. I came here to tell Clara and ask her to forgive me for the way I’ve felt all these years.”
Mort sat silent, eyes cast downward toward the wood in his hand, “What are you going to do when you get to Kansas City?” Mort asked absently. “You got a place to stay? What about a job?”
“Yeah, the parole office got me a place and renewed my union membership. They said it’s okay if I work at the clubs, as long as I report to them, keep my nose clean and follow all their rules.”
Mort looked at him in silence for a while longer. “You know, Eddie, sometimes a man fools himself,” he was quiet and still as he spoke, “He tries to convince himself that things aren’t his business and, so, he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t get involved because it’s easier than doing the right thing. But actually, all that does is make him a coward.”
Eddie, brow furrowed, squinted slightly as he looked at Mort. “I don’t know what you mean, Mort.”
Mort stood up and went into the house as he said, “Wait here.”
A few minutes later he returned with Clara in tow. “I want to say this in front of Edward, Clara. You’re going to have to tell him. He deserves to know, and if you don’t tell him, I will.”
Clara’s mouth set so that her lips were barely visible. Her eyes locked on Mort before she answered in a strangled voice, “Morten, we should go inside and talk of this together.”
“No, like I said, tell him or I will.” He was quiet but firm.
Clara looked at Mort for a long time before turning to Eddie. Her face slowly slackened, her mouth relaxed, and her shoulders moved forward slightly. She whispered, “She only did it because she thought it would do you good.”
“Tell him all of it, Clara.” Mort was now more forceful than Eddie had ever seen him.
Clara’s eyes went first to Mort and then to Eddie, “After you went to prison, Mother found the money. It had fallen behind the filing cabinet, but she said that it was the Lords’ will. That you had to be punished or you would be lost forever. She hoped that prison life would make you go back to God. She was doing what any good Christian would do for a sinner. That the Redeemer would only save you if you sought Him and renounced your transgressions.”
Eddie pushed away from the railing, standing rigidly as his hands clenched into fists, the rising anger tightening his throat. Then suddenly, a primal scream seemed to envelop them all as Eddie threw his head back with his mouth wide open and tears flooded from his eyes.
“Don’t you understand? She did it for you, for your soul. She was trying to rescue you from everlasting Hell.” Clara was standing there, looking at him with her arms wrapped tightly around herself.
Eddie’s knees almost buckled at the shock of what Clara told him, “Do you have any idea what you and Mother put me through? The horrors. How can you blaspheme God like that? My first day in prison, I was gang raped by five or six men. They beat me and used me for hours. For all the time I was there, I was constantly being threatened. I was treated like an animal by the guards and the inmates. I have seen men maimed or killed for nothing. Men prey on other men, just to show the power they hold.
You wanted to rescue me from Hell. Are you out of your mind? You put me in Hell. And I was there until this morning.”
Eddie grasped the railing as a terrifying howl of a rent soul burst from his mouth again. Tears came pouring from his eyes, “My God, please help me understand. How could you do this? How could she do this,” his crying was coming from some deep hole within him.
Clara, with a tremor in her voice, said “Edward, stop. Whatever you went through, we did it for you. For your soul.”
Suddenly Clara’s chin fell to her breast and her shoulders slumped. A mewling groan broke from her lips, tears began pouring from her eyes and mucous snaked it’s way out of her nose, “God, what did we do? Please, Edward. Oh, God, oh God, why did I go along with Mother? Edward, I really and truly am sorry.”
Her wailing was muffled as she buried her face into Mort’s shoulder. More gently than Eddie had ever known him to be, Mort took a handkerchief from his pocket and began wiping her face as he put his arm around her, “Not you, we. You and me, we’re to blame.” Mort shushed her in a whisper. He rocked Clara as if comforting a child, “All we can do now is try what we can to fix things.”
“What!” Still unsteady, Eddie supported himself by holding on to the post beside the steps of the porch with both arms, “How are you going to fix this? How could you have done this to me?” His eyes were still streaming and his face was contorted. “This was my mother, my family, all of you, that made it so I had to stay in that place. My God! Do you know what it was like in there, what kind of hell I went through. And it was all for nothing, all for nothing.” His voice diminished to a hoarse whisper.
Mort went to Eddie and put his hand lightly on his chest, “It was important that you know the truth. What we did to you was horrific. If it were me, I don’t know that I would be able to forgive anyone, but you’re going to have to accept it happened and move on. Don’t forget what that man told you. I hope that you can see that it’s important, not for us but for you, to find a way to forgive. You can’t be happy until you can put this behind you.”
“Mort, I have to get out of here” he said. His chest felt as if it were being crushed. His throat was so tight he had trouble breathing. His hands clenched so tightly his knuckles had turned white, “This is too much to think about. I do believe what he told me, and I do believe I have to forgive, but I can’t right now. I’ve just got to go somewhere and think.”
“Edward, I’m glad you know what happened. I’m just as much to blame, probably more. I should have said or done something a long time ago. Maybe, after some thought you’ll truly be able to forgive us.” Mort looked at Clara and then back to Eddie, “I know we don’t deserve it, but, like I said, I think that man told you a truth. I don’t know if I could forgive something like this if it happened to me, but I think the man was right. It will set you free.”
“Mort, will you give me a ride into to town?” Eddie, with shoulders drooped and head hanging low, began descending the steps to the yard, “I’ve just got to get out of here. I’ll take the bus to K. C. tomorrow early.”
“Alright, Edward, I’ll do anything you want,” Mort put his hand on Eddie’s shoulder, “but if you would rather, we can leave for Kansas City tonight. I’ll take you now. I’ll stay with you and come Monday, we can go to the parole office and see if they can help us figure out what we can do to fix this. Just say the word.”
Eddie just nodded, “Okay, Mort, I think it would be a good idea if we went now. I wouldn’t be able to stay by myself,” he whispered. Without raising his head or looking at either of them, he added, “What happens if they want to press charges on someone? How does that get fixed?”
Mort turned to Clara, “You go see Edward’s lawyer tomorrow, Clara and explain what happened.” Turning to Eddie, “If charges are going to be filed on us, there is nothing we can do. We have to accept whatever happens.”
Clara, still sobbing, nodded yes.
Mort took his hat and truck keys from the hook inside the front door as he put his hand softly on Eddie’s shoulder, “Alright then, grab your things, Edward.”
The men entered the truck and drove off. Clara, her hands clasped as if in prayer, leaned against the rail and watched the twin red lights bounce up and down, and side to side down the rutted drive to the interstate.