Clouds of East Danford

Warren Read

It was a long time before my mother spoke to me again. We drove out of the school parking lot and took the back route, all the way past Olsen’s Discount Furniture on the edge of town, and the whole way she said nothing. It wasn’t until we crossed the Cedar Creek Bridge and spilled out into the low valley farmlands that she even cleared her throat. Black and white cows spotted the green fields, their heads bowed to the ground. A few small houses rested under crowded canopies of trees, pale oases waiting at the ends of dusty driveways. Straight through it all, the valley road cut like a long, black zipper.

“Have you been out here before, Ray?” she finally asked me. Her hands worried at the steering wheel, cherry red fingernails flashing with each movement. She took her eyes from the road to look at me.

I had not been across the flats in my whole life, and I told her so.

“You sure?” she asked. “You wouldn’t keep something like that from your mother?”

“I’m sure,” I said. There was something in the way she was talking, her tone gripping the edge of nervous. “I've never been down here,” I said. “Not with anyone.”

The roadway lifted and fell, and my stomach tumbled. Outside my window barbed wire zipped past, the tic of black fence posts a silent rhythm beneath my mother’s trembling voice.

“Okay then,” she said with a sigh. “If you say so, I believe you.”

Behind us, in the back seat of the used Pontiac my father had bought from a man who was his supervisor six months earlier, my school bag was filled with reading and multiplication I was supposed to do that night. I couldn’t be sure how much work was waiting for me, but we were driving farther and farther out into the county and my mother had not yet told me why she had come early to pull me from school. I had always been good about my homework. Mrs. Carmen expected things on time and correct, and I didn’t want to cross her. Junior high was coming next year, and I had to be ready for it.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Hand me my purse,” she said, punching the dashboard lighter with her thumb and nodding to the lumpy handbag sitting at my feet. She glared at the road ahead, her brows pressed down, the low sun washing the blond so that they looked almost white.

Smoking was something I saw my mother do rarely, sometimes when she was anxious over something, and always at the end of an argument with my father. In those moments she would magically produce a pack of Vantages from a drawer or a coat pocket, tap it against her palm, and slide one out like it was a sword. Holding the lighter with a shaking hand, she’d draw from the cigarette as if it was the spout of a hose in the middle of the desert.

“I’m not mad at you, Ray,” she said, digging through her purse. And then she lifted her eyebrows suddenly as if she’d just remembered something. “Okay?”

“I know that,” I said.

“Do you?”

“Yeah. Because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You’re right,” she said. “No matter what happens, I want you to remember that.” And then she patted my knee with her hand.

We came through the valley flats and then we crossed the red trestle bridge on the far side, taking the lazy hill into East Danford. I knew it from the grand old Victorian shops and the spotting of Easter egg-colored houses that rose up the hillside. I had seen pictures in school and my teacher had talked some about it, of the early settler days and how it was the mill workers and lumbermen who built the whole west side of town. In fact, she’d said, the old Danford-Smith sawmill was the same one that had put out lumber back when her own great-grandparents settled the area. My father, I told Mrs. Carmen at the time, worked at Danford-Smith. Now I could see the twin smokestacks some distance up river, white billowing into the sky as if they were making the clouds.

My mother pointed at them and asked, “Well how about that, Ray?” as if it was the greatest thing ever. “Have you been to see your dad’s work?”

“No, ma’am,” I said. “I told you I was never out here.”

“Well, we’re not going all the way out there, that’s for sure,” she said. “But there the stacks are. Everyone over here knows the mill.”

When we got to the top of the hill, my mother pulled the car to the side of the road and rolled down the window all the way. She snapped her cigarette out into the street and put her purse on her lap. She reached in and moved some things around, holding it so I couldn’t see what she was after. Finally she took out a scrap of paper and unfolded it. She leaned out the window and looked up at the houses. The air was cool in spite of the low October sun and I drank it in, a thankful reprieve from the smoke that had not been able to find its way through the cracked wing window.

“What’s that street sign say?” she asked, pointing to a green tag at the end of the block on my side.

“Grover,” I said.

“Grover,” she repeated, slowly, like she was taking the time to pronounce every letter. “Grow-ver.” She looked at the paper again. I could see there was a map of some kind drawn over it, and something written in cursive, which I was still not very good at reading.

“Ray,” she said, turning to look at me, her hands on the seat next to me, “I think I’m about to do something here. And the thing is, I’m not sure exactly how it’s all going to turn out.” She was leaning close and her breath smelled both raw and sweet and her forehead was layered with creases, as if she might break into tears any minute. “I want to apologize to you now in case it goes south. I might not be in the frame of mind to do it later.”

I wondered then if something illegal was about to happen, maybe a bank robbery or a store holdup. I couldn’t see my mother doing either of these but at this point anything seemed possible. “What’s happening?” I asked. She must have heard the fear in my voice because she put her hand on my arm.

“I’m just going to talk to someone is all,” she said. “They might not want to talk to me, though, or they might not even be home. So in that case this whole thing will have been a waste of time and gas.” She looked over her shoulder and pulled back out into the street. “But if things go the way they might, you should just sit and not say anything. No matter what, just be there with me.”

At the end of the block we turned off to the left and took a narrow, winding road down into a neighborhood of smaller houses, houses with peeling gray paint that were crowded together like the railroad cottages against the switchyards in West Danford, where we lived. We drove with my mother leaning into the windshield, peering up at the house numbers.

The cars along the sidewalks were the kind that my dad liked to call welfare rigs, most of them splotched with gray primer or covered with vinyl tops peeling like sunburned skin. My mother said, “Okay now”, and steered the car carefully into an empty space against the curb. She put her keys in her purse and held it on her lap. Then she rested her chin on her chest and closed her eyes as if she was praying.

Outside the sun was resting behind a line of conker-spotted chestnut trees. I had climbed the giant one on the vacant lot near our house countless times, to pick the spiky fruit that hung from its thick branches. My friends and I would form small piles along the edges of the lot, then hurl them at one another from behind makeshift plywood shields, the bruises on our bodies war wounds of which we could be proud, showing them off at school to anyone who would look. It drove my mother to the edge to see my arms covered in circular spots, but my father would laugh and shake his head, and remind me to guard my face at all costs. The day it was cut down and the lot dozed for what would be a skinny house with no front porch, my best friend and I swore under our breaths from the sidewalk across the street.

My mother finally snapped her purse closed, looked up, and opened the car door.

“Let’s go.”

A half dozen cracked and moss-striped concrete steps led up to the front porch of the tired-looking gray bungalow and we climbed the steps slowly, my mother’s purse swinging from her shoulder and slapping against her side. White drapes were pulled to the edges of the front picture window, and I could see a table lamp illuminated just inside. A freshly tilled garden bed ran along the block foundation, from the porch steps to a thick holly shrub at the corner. When we got to the top, my mother pushed the doorbell without pausing.

“Here we go,” she said. “No turning back now.”

A wind picked up from behind us and the air was wet, and I wondered if it might start raining soon. The sky looming above the rippling chestnut leaves moved in pillowed, smoky clouds.

“I guess they’re not home,” I said. I forced my hands into my pockets and leaned against the porch railing. She rang the bell again, and it seemed to me that she was determined to be sure she had done all that she could do, but that even she hoped we could turn around and just go back home.

“Hello?” A voice called out from along the side of the house. A woman appeared from around the holly bush. Unlike my mother, who always wore slacks stretched over pear-like hips, this woman was thin, with a flannel shirt tucked into her jeans and sleeves rolled up to her knobby elbows. And she was young. Her face was a landscape of freckles, the kind of face I’d see on girls across the street from the high school running to our bus stop, stacks of books held tightly to their lumpy chests. She took the dirt-caked gloves from her hands and pulled a long strand of black hair back over her shoulder.

My mother came down the steps and stopped at the base. She moved her purse from one shoulder to the other and rested a hand against her hip.

“Are you Sara?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“You work at the mill down there? At Danford-Smith?”

The woman brought her hands to her front and took the gloves in a tight grip. She glanced up and down the street and then looked at my mother again, and then up at me. She held me in her gaze and I could sense that even though she’d rather my mother wasn’t there, she especially wished I had not come. Something was to happen that I should not be a part of.

“Well?” my mother said.

“Yeah,” the woman said. “I work there.” She slapped the gloves against her leg.

“Should I introduce myself? You know who I am?” My mother pointed at me over her shoulder. “This right here is my kid, by the way.”

“I’m pretty sure I know you who are,” Sara said. Her shoulders rose and fell with a heavy sigh. I felt sorry for her at that moment, sorry that my mother and I had come to her house uninvited and sorry that we were probably two people she did not want to see. Then she said, “Maybe we should go on inside.”

The house was dimly lit, and the place smelled like whatever had been cooked last, fried grease maybe, not the kind of smell that made a person wish they could sit down to eat. The walls were checked with photos of people in close-up with curled knuckles touching their chins, or in chairs or standing behind one another, hands resting stiffly on shoulders with teeth bared in forced, unnatural smiles. A leaf-bordered carpet runner led from where we stood and disappeared into the darkness of what I assumed must be the back of the house, where the bedrooms were and probably the bathroom that I hoped I would not have to ask to use.

I followed my mother into the small living room where we sank onto a blanket-draped sofa, noisy springs and stiff lumps giving way beneath us. Sara took the chair on the other side of the coffee table.

There was not a great deal of room in this house; in fact, the living room was not much bigger than my bedroom. I could see into the kitchen and there seemed to be hardly enough room in there to move, much less cook. A square table pressed against the wall with two wooden chairs. A single countertop was interrupted by a stove that looked about half the size of the one in our kitchen.

“Can I get you something?” Sara asked. “Water or coffee?”

“I don’t want anything.” My mother’s tone was rusty.

And then we all sat there, not talking, for what seemed like an eternity. Sara kept her eyes down at her hands but my mother just stared at her, unblinking. The noise of each of us breathing choked the room and I wanted to break from the little house and run into the street, run as far from the thickness of that place as possible.

I had begun to realize as soon as we sat down on that sofa that all of this had something to do with my father, and with this woman, though I wasn’t yet sure exactly what that something could be. By that time in my life I understood the way things worked between men and women, but I suppose I hadn’t yet placed my own parents in that complicated world. There had been nothing at home to suggest that my father might be taking up with another woman although I knew that sort of thing happened. I’d seen it plenty on television. I knew a man in the neighborhood who left his whole family and moved in with a waitress he’d met while he was on the road delivering whiskey. I’d heard his own daughter say she hoped they both might be found dead on the side of the road someday. But I never once heard my mother ask my father where he’d been all night, or answer telephone calls, saying “Hello? Hello?” into the receiver while the other end remained silent.

“This is Ray,” my mother said, pushing her knee against mine. “Say hello to Sara.”

“Hello, Sara,” I said.

Sara whispered, “Hello, Ray.” She continued looking at her hands.

My mother laughed then. It wasn’t a full release but more of a cough, something she caught hold of before it could go on any further. “I have to say,” she said, “you’re not much to look at. Scrawny. I guess I thought there’d be more.” My mother tapped her knee against mine again. “What do you think of her, Ray?”

I just shrugged my shoulders. At that moment I actually thought that she was a decent-looking woman, pretty in the face and she wore her clothes nicely. But I was not about to say as much.

“You’ve got your youth, that’s about it,” my mother said loudly, and then she leaned over and said in my ear, “She’s got youth, Ray, nothing more. And besides, it won’t last. We all get to have that for a short time. I had it. Some of us make better use of it than others, that’s all.”

Sara leaned her head down and her hair fell so I couldn’t see her face anymore. My mother took that purse of hers and moved it onto her lap and clicked open the clasp.

“You should know that Ray is in the sixth grade,” she said. “He’ll be going to college someday, but we’re not building a plan based on scholarships. He’s a good student, but he’s not a great student.”

Sara raised her head again to look at me. The way her eyes hung at the bottoms she seemed to be apologizing, as if she had brought us into a situation in which there was no way out. As if someone—or maybe all of us—would not be getting out of this alive.

“He plays sports, too,” my mother said. “A lot of sports, two seasons a year. Basketball and baseball.”

Sara nodded.

“How much do those cost, Ray?” my mother asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Her tone hadn’t changed and it sounded as though she was angry with me, now. “I’ll tell you how much,” she said. “A hundred and twenty dollars. Each season. And he’s outgrowing his clothes faster than we can buy them, and there’ll probably be braces soon and God knows what else.”

Sara slid to the edge of the chair and ran her hands over her lap, smoothing out denim that didn’t need it. She glanced around the room some and then she looked to my mother.

“I understand what you’re saying,” she said.

“Do you?” my mother asked. “Miss Thing. Lester Bell doesn’t have a life of just cutting boards and drinking beer. He’s got a family, you know. Lester Bell has responsibilities.”

Hearing my father’s name like that had the effect of dropping him squarely into the room, as if the ceiling had opened up and he’d fallen straight down onto the sofa alongside us. I could almost smell the scent of his aftershave, and the sweet aroma of cedar.

“I know he does.”

“Do you?” My mother said it again. “Do you?”

Sara got up from her chair then and went to the window. She pulled the drapes back through they were thin and not all the way closed, and we could all see everything that was outside, closed or not. I could see the branches on the chestnut tree moving in the breeze, and the conkers too.

My mother said to her, “What are you thinking about? Are you thinking about how stupid you are? That all that’s been going on wouldn’t have consequences? That there wouldn’t be a face at the other end of all of this?”

“I’m guess what I’m wondering right now is what I’m going to say when I go in to work tonight,” Sara said. “Am I going to tell him you came by here today?” She glanced at me, then looked at the window again. “Maybe he already knows you’re here.”

“He doesn’t know a damned thing,” my mother said. “He doesn’t know a thing, Ray.”

And then I said, “I know,” because it was the only thing at that moment that made sense to me, that my father would know nothing about all of this.

Sara turned and came toward us a few steps, and her hair had fallen down over her face again so that I couldn’t see her eyes. She brushed it back and looked into the kitchen as if she was thinking she should offer us something, and I really thought she might. I was ready to decline whatever it might be. I supposed my mother would not want me to accept something from this woman, no matter what it might be.

But instead Sara said, “Can the boy go outside for a minute?” She was looking at my mother, but her hand was held out at her waist, the palm up with her fingers pointed at me like she had just thrown dice. “I have a few things I’d like to say about all this. And the truth is I don’t think it’s right for him to be here.”

My mother slid back on the sofa and took her purse in her hands again and began to play with the strap. There was a look in her eyes that made me think she might not want me to leave, the kind of look that said she was afraid of what might happen if she was on her own in there. But I got up from the sofa anyway, just made for the front door and pushed through, ran down the steps and out into the street, over to the chestnut trees on the other side.

Most of the conkers still lived in the trees, but there were plenty that had fallen onto the ground, their spiny coats split and showing the deep, mahogany wood-like nut peeking through. I sank into the grass and scooped handfuls of them closer to me, and began peeling the covers from the nuts. They were smooth and cool, and I filled my pockets with them as fast as I could since I did not know how long my mother would remain inside that house, and I had a sense that when she did finally emerge, she would be in no mood to wait for me to finish scavenging like a squirrel.

From somewhere up the hill, from where we had driven past the colorful houses and the vista of smokestacks in the distance, the sound of a dog’s barking knocked out, its voice deep and hard, angry. It kept on, pounding like a bass drum or the litany of a dozen gunshots. I slid a few more nuts into my pockets. A car horn blared and somebody shouted over it, and then it all came to a stop.

My pockets were tight now and they stuck out from my legs in strange lumps. A wind picked up, carrying the smell of wood smoke from somewhere, and the dampness of fall that was fast coming upon us. The front door of Sara’s house snapped open, and my mother stepped outside onto the porch. She didn’t look up at me or say any final words before leaving; she just moved her purse from one shoulder to the other and came down the steps in a casual fashion, as if she was leaving the home of a friend, or somebody she had delivered a package to.

“Pathetic,” she said as soon as she closed the car door behind her. “I hope you realize just how much filth that was inside there. Pure, absolute filth.” I asked her if we were going home then but she just put her purse on the floor between her feet and said, “Remember what I told you, Ray. Not a word about any of this.”

“I won’t,” I said, though I wasn’t sure how I would be able to honor that promise. My father and I did not share a good many words with each other at the time, but I still believed that he could see into my head when I was not being truthful. He’d told me many times that he could smell a lie before it even left my lips and I believed him, mostly because it had seemed to be true. I could not lie to save my life, and I imagined I would smell just like Sara’s kitchen the moment I tried. Greasy and sharp, and impossible to miss. My mother turned on the radio as we pulled from the curb, and when the song began to play she hummed along with it.

“This person, this guy singing,” she said, reaching over and tapping the dash above the radio, “overdosed in a cheap hotel room, all by himself.” She shook her head. “Such a waste. He probably had at least thirty more years of music just waiting there inside him. And the world will never hear it.”

“People do dumb things,” I said.

“People are selfish,” she said. “They’re selfish and they do what they want, when they want to. They don’t think for a second about the mess they leave behind.”

As we came back down into the valley and hit the mouth of the red trestle bridge, I watched through the side mirror white smoke pushing out of the mill stacks, like the plumes of quills brushing against the fading light of the sky. I thought about Sara sitting in her house all by herself, picturing her tongue hard behind her teeth, her hands clasped on her knees as if in prayer.

Of course she would tell him everything. Years later my mother would say over and over, “How could she not have opened that mouth of hers?” She’d laugh then and shake her head, and knock dishes together or beat her hand against the pillow hard before tucking it back into the sofa. “If she’d had an ounce of self-control in her, she wouldn’t have wound up with him in the first place, now would she?”

And the chestnuts that pressed against my legs on that drive home would, in the early hours of the next morning, roll like polished stones scattered across our kitchen floor. My mother’s tennis shoes would kick through them as she pulled me by the wrist to the car, the trunk loaded with suitcases and plastic garbage bags filled with unwashed clothing and mismatched bed linens. She’d swear and cry while the whole time my father hung back in the hallway, a shadow with no discernable features that I can recall, no eyes or mouth or hands to reach out for me as I was led past him. The things I remember can fit into the space of a twelve year-old’s closed fist: the sound of a father’s breathing, rattled and thick, and shoulders that should have been strong from years pushing rough-hewn lumber now fallen and empty, like the branches of an old chestnut at the end of a long autumn.