Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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from The Faulkes Chronicle
     Nothing feels better
     Than blood on blood.
          —Bruce Springsteen, “Highway Patrolman”

1. In Her Last Year of Life
                      our mother betrayed us by becoming pretty. We are a homely family. For generations we’ve been that way. A different idea of beauty evolved among us. Faulkeses looked for plain-faced and chubby mates. Our choices weren’t particularly conscious, they were just what our genes told us to do. Now and then a Faulkes boy would be attracted to a cheerleader or a Faulkes girl would get the hots for a pretty boy. Those relationships sometimes quickened, but they could not be sustained.

Our mother had the classic Faulkes features, the small, wide-spaced eyes, the negative cheekbones, the too-long chin and nose, the short forehead. When she went into chemo, chemo rearranged her face, thinned her down, installed into her repertoire of facial expressions a grimace that had every appearance of a starlet’s smile. In particular, our mother’s baldness made her look delicate and vulnerable. A slightly visible blue vein that throbbed along the side her head just above her ear made our father close his eyes to the sight of it. “It looks like a clever painter’s brushstroke,” he said. “Notice it, and you want to touch it.”

Indeed that was generally the case with our mother as she was dying. We wanted to be near her, wanted to be within touching distance of her, wanted to sit shoulder to shoulder with her, so that our arms might brush against her arms. And this was not merely the case with us Faulkeses. Townspeople and even strangers were drawn to her. People introduced themselves to her—we understood after awhile—just to be able to shake hands with her.

“This was bound to happen sometime,” said our mother’s oncologist. “Mostly chemo ravages people’s looks. In your mother’s case, the effect has been to beautify.” He glanced at us. “I plan to monitor her very carefully.” Then he looked back at her with a gaze a sculptor might bestow upon his recent masterpiece. This was in the oncology conference room with all of the immediate family present. It was a month after our first session with Doctor Lawson when he had stunned us by explaining that our mother’s tumor was located too near her heart to be operable. And this “monitor her very carefully” moment was when we first began to suspect that Doctor Lawson was smitten with our mother.

The effect on her was not what we would have anticipated. Though she married into the family, our mother had had the Faulkes character before she even met our father. Faulkeses are first and foremost practical, unpretentious, and straightforward people. You won’t find a simpering Faulkes anywhere on the planet. We don’t flirt, we don’t small-talk, we don’t suck up, we don’t flatter, we don’t shoot the breeze. We have thrived because we are notably competent and dependable. A Faulkes makes an excellent plumber, a skilled commando, a steady airline pilot. But as our mother moved into her prettiness, she evidently thought it worth her while to enter the social fray and enjoy the lower order of human intercourse. After all, what did she have to lose? She actually batted her eyes at her oncologist when he took her pulse that afternoon in his conference room. Our Aunt Beatrice audibly inhaled and left the room when she saw our mother’s shameless act. “I didn’t know people actually did that thing with their eyes,” she said later that afternoon.

Our mother allowed her oncologist to be evasive about telling us how much time she had to live. We all knew that the only legitimate offering oncologists have for their patients is the life span estimate, which everyone knows is usually incorrect. But in our mother’s case, we were greedy to hear it—six months to a year, five years, whatever, accurate or not, we wanted the time she had with us to be named and quantified. And our mother encouraged Doctor Lawson in his shifty language. “There are too many unknowns in your mother’s case,” he explained, looking from one to another of us around the room. “And besides, a single day for one person may be the equivalent of several years for another,” he pontificated to us that afternoon in the conference room—after he’d taken our mother’s pulse for a good two minutes. “I suggest to you all that you try to appreciate every instance of your mother’s company. After all, doesn’t the fact that death comes to us all eventually make the fact of death a tawdry and useless piece of information? Put death-thoughts aside, I say,” he said. “Love your mother completely in each moment you have with her, and both you and she will be fulfilled.” Then he patted our mother’s hand, stood up, looked us each in the eyes in turn, nodded as if to agree with himself, and walked back out into the corridors of his oncology floor of the hospital.

“That fellow’s sort of a turd,” our father said, and we were glad for his outburst. A Faulkes virtue is that we are not inclined to use degraded words. And even by Faulkes standards, our father was a taciturn man. Which is not to say that he lacked an emotional life. As long as we children lived in his house, he insisted on kissing us good night, always very late and after we’d turned out our lights, a quick brush of his lips across our foreheads followed by his softly uttered “Night, Franklin,” or “Night, Susan,” “Night, Tony,” or “Night, Carlton.” “Night, McKenzie.” “Night, Sarah Jean.” “Night, Desiree.” “Night, Jane.” “Night, C.J.” There are so many of us it takes him a while to make the rounds, and the syllables of our names might be the only ones he’s spoken to us throughout the day. So the gutter word he chose to describe Doctor Lawson caused us to flinch almost in unison but then to look gleefully at each other’s faces. Our mother paid no attention to us, but she did look up from her wrist, which must still have been feeling the oncologist’s fingers pressing on it. And she scrutinized our father with unusual intensity.

At Goshen High School our father had risen from shop teacher and wrestling coach to principal. If it were possible for a mostly silent and nearly invisible man to become a beloved figure in our town, our father would have been that person. In our immediate family, we believed that he deliberately behaved so as to avoid becoming beloved. He was expressive with his hands, and they were his primary teaching and coaching tools. With a quick slicing motion of his extended fingers across the fingers of the other hand, he could show you why it was important to push a one-by-six into the ripsaw in the correct fashion. And you’d remember the lesson forever. He never touched his wrestlers, but he could move his hands and sometimes his legs and his whole torso to demonstrate a certain hold or tripping maneuver or escape from a hold or evasive tactic.

As the high school principal, our father used his physical presence and his particular variations of the Faulkes face to maintain discipline in the hallways, the cafeteria, and the gymnasium. When we Faulkes children saw him in these venues and witnessed how he adjusted his face to suggest hellish consequences for misbehavior, we were grateful that he never brought his “professional” facial expressions into our house or into our own family life. But at home or at school he never resorted to physical punishment. When a teacher sent a problem student to his office, our father often returned that student to the classroom with an improved attitude and a determination to try to live a more constructive life. One such student told of sitting an hour directly across from our father at his desk with our father saying nothing but insisting that the student continue looking into his face.

Faulkeses tend to have large families for no reason other than that we enjoy children and we favor dogs and cats and even exotic pets like possums and hamsters. Faulkeses like the general chaos of a human- and animal-populated household. Ours, however, is the largest Faulkes family on record. A joke in Goshen is that the Delbert Faulkeses are trying to replace all the townspeople with their own kind. Our mother once told us that it might not be as much a joke as our townsfolk think it is. A Faulkes generally prefers the company of another Faulkes to that of a non-Faulkes. All of which background made our mother’s emerging prettiness raise some questions in the minds of all of us. Can there be a winsome or cute Faulkes? If through no fault of her own, a Faulkes woman loses those physical characteristics that define her as a Faulkes, how should she be treated by other Faulkeses? And how can she continue to view herself as a Faulkes if she no longer looks like one? More disturbing, do we Faulkeses behave the way we do because our looks are not conventionally appealing? Do we subconsciously pay for our homeliness by working harder, being more responsible, and cultivating unimpeachable integrity? Couldn’t a beautiful Faulkes—as our mother appeared to be in the process of becoming—simply sit around all day eating chocolates and chatting with the ladies of the Goshen Bridge Club? Or sitting out on her front porch fanning herself and encouraging the attention of lazy and superficial townsfolk? “Would you like to come up and sit a spell and join me in a glass of iced tea?” such a pretty Faulkes might call down to a passing acquaintance, such as her oncologist, who happened to be walking past her house.

Our mother’s maiden name was Karen Seifert. She told us that when she was growing up, people thought she was smart but too quiet for her own good. People told her she should smile more often, which she considered stupid advice. “What they missed about me,” she told us, “was that I have a really silly side to me. But evidently I was pretty good at keeping that a secret.” Karen Seifert took a degree in American literature from Georgetown University, then she came north to teach English at Goshen High School. She married our father after her first year of teaching and while he was still the shop teacher. When she became pregnant with our oldest sister, Jane, our mother submitted her resignation, and committed herself to what she liked to call “household management.” She liked to say that reading was her addiction, so she’d never stop doing it, but keeping a clean and orderly house and tending to her children’s needs was considerably more appealing than trying to persuade country children to appreciate Emily Dickinson. She said she’d never found much pleasure in the classroom. Now and then one of us would hear one of the old rumors about her—that she was a teacher without mercy, that she feared no student, parent, or school board member.

“When I stopped teaching, I became a human being again,” our mother liked to say. “It’s you children who brought me into myself.” But we children—and everyone else in the family—understood her to mean that she became a complete Faulkes. Thanks to her, our family life took on energy, humor, soul, purpose, and camaraderie. We children functioned like a troupe of acrobats. She liked us. That was the simple fact of her. Of course she loved us, and she made sure that we understood that. But the great pleasure of our mother was that as soon as we were born, she began studying us, discerning our qualities and our inclinations. She began talking with us, joking with us, asking us questions, reading to us, playing music for us, teaching us songs, telling us little things she knew we would appreciate. With each of us, it was as if we were born with our best friend already out there and waiting for us to arrive.

In one of our late-night conversations about our mother after she died, our sister, Jane, described for us how our mother had shown her—and Jane thought this happened when she was about four—how to carry out the end-of-the-day cleaning of the sink and the countertop. “Swear to God, I had no idea this was something anybody else in the world would have considered work,” Jane said. “Our mother had said, ‘Here’s what you can do with a sponge.’ She picked up the dish drainer and set it aside, picked up the pan beneath it, poured out the water, used the scrubby side of the sponge to clean it, then the soft side to wipe it almost dry. Then she set it back in place and polished it up with a paper towel before she set the drainer back in its place. She proceeded to move aside all the canisters, the microwave, the coffee grinder, the jars, and she sponged away every speck of food or stain or coffee ground, then dried it all with a single paper towel. She did these things neatly, as if she were following a pattern in her mind. The whole time she cleaned, she very softly hummed and scat-sang and murmured to the flour and sugar jars. It was like this amazing adult recreational activity. She’d sat me up on the stool over by the phone counter, and she’d tell me what she was doing while she did it, and she’d show me the sponge, let me smell it, show me her wet hands, ask me if she’d got the canisters lined up just right. When she’d finished and arranged everything back in its place, she lifted me up so that I could view the results. ‘What do you think?’ she asked me and touched the faucet that she’d polished up to look like new.” Jane shook her head and even teared up a little bit. “Even now,” Jane said, “if I’m feeling wrong with the world or if I’m missing her just way too much, I know what to do.”

What Jane said applied to every one of us. We each had this particular, almost secret ritual our mother had taught us—back when she was the imperial Faulkes mother—that just incidentally installed some order into the world. She gave each of us a way to defend ourselves from discouragement and squalor.


2. In Our Immediate Family,
                      we do not lightly use the word betrayal when we speak of our mother’s evolution into prettiness and away from absolute Faulkesness. Disturbing as the mere fact of her coming death is to us, we’re hurt more by the doubt we’ve inherited from her treachery. If our mother can reject so much of what she’s taught us, so much of what she’s represented to us as worthwhile, then was there any truth to her teaching in the first place? “We are talking about metaphysical uncertainty here,” says our brother, Robert, who’s recently taken a course in existential literature at Bard.

“She would so totally snort at you for even saying something like that,” says our sister, Jennifer. “If you use words with more than three syllables, she’ll roll her eyes at you.”

“Yeah, right,” says Robert. “Damn right in fact, if you’re talking about before the chemo. But now that she’s changed, I’ll bet she’d go for these French writers I’ve been reading. I’ll bet she’d say she finally understands what can be cool about philosophical literature.”

The ones of us who are sitting around the table this evening nod our heads. A long-standing debate about whether or not our mother is cool went on among us even before the cancer came to get her. Was it cool to wear clothes that nobody noticed? Cool never to drink more than a single glass of wine? Cool to teach your kids the old hymns like “Shall We Gather by the River”? and “Bringing in the Sheaves”? Cool to teach the whole family—including our father—to recite Goodnight Moon from beginning to end and to sing “Frank Mills” and “What a Piece of Work is Man” all the way through? It isn’t a debate anybody will ever win, and we children can—and often do—argue either side of it, but we almost always reach the conclusion that cool doesn’t apply to Faulkeses in general or to our mother in particular.


3. In the Face of Our Mother’s Increasing Beauty,
                                        our father becomes helpless. Early on, when none of us quite realize what’s transpiring with her, our mother insists that he take her to the Iron Boots New Year’s Eve dance. This is such a radical request that later we surmise that Doctor Lawson must have put her up to it by giving her free tickets to the event. But that information hasn’t yet come into the open. It is simply the case that one day our mother has the tickets, she never explains how she got them, and when she and our father arrive at the dance, Doctor Lawson is the only person there who welcomes them and talks with them during the evening. We haven’t even met Doctor Lawson yet, because our mother has not told us of her initial visit to him.

The Iron Boots Society is the last organization any Faulkes will ever join. Its members are the kind of people who involuntarily look down on Faulkeses. Iron Boots members hire Faulkeses, do business with them, ask favors of them, speak politely to them, but almost never socialize with them. Which is just how Faulkeses prefer things to be. Iron Boots members are Goshen’s social people, and the greater snobbery may be that of the Faulkeses, because we have so little respect for the ones who think they are our local keepers of taste and beauty. Doctor Lawson of course comes from somewhere out west, and so he is excused from the mild contempt Faulkeses feel for Iron Boots members—except that he so perfectly fits into that pompous crowd.

“You know how it is with dancing and this family,” our father tells us next evening after our mother has gone to bed. “If a Faulkes dances at all, it’s darned exceptional. And if a Faulkes does dance, it’s goofy, awkward, spontaneous, and pretty comical. If he dances at all, a Faulkes will do it someplace where it probably ought not to be done—meandering through the plumbing section of Aubuchon Hardware, putting gas into his car, shoveling snow. So I asked your mother if she and I were going to have to dance at the Iron Boots thing, and she said yes, we were going to have to do it, because that’s what you do when you go to a dance. And I thought”—this is our father speaking the truth to us, as he never fails to do but with considerably more passion than we are used to hearing from him—“I thought this is the love of my life, the mother of my children, and my companion until death takes one of us away. If she wants me to dance with her, then I will dance, even if all of Goshen sees me acting a fool.”

Our father is as much a brother to us children as he is a father, and so our hearts go out to him as he gives his account. Of course this is before we even know that our mother is ill, and so we have no inkling that we are embarking on the journey of our mother’s dying. But since the topic is dancing, we can’t help noting that our father’s appearance seems even more Faulkes-like than ever. His arms are about an inch longer and his legs an inch shorter than is normal for a man of his size. He likes to say that his true calling was to be a bricklayer because he is strong, good with his hands, and an agile climber. He likes to claim that he accidentally fell into his career as a high school principal. Poignancy radiates from him as he tells of accompanying our mother to the Iron Boots dance.

“She’d bought that dress,” he says—and of course we know about the frilly deep purple velvet frock in which our mother presented herself to us in the living room that evening just before she and our father left the house. We’d witnessed her brilliance in that dress. It had surprised us all, maybe even slightly bruised our consciousness, because we were never again able to see our mother in quite the same way, and it was days before we could even bring it up for discussion.

“She’d bought that dress, and she’d bought some lipstick and eye makeup, too, and so even though she still looked like a Faulkes, the way she’d got herself up also made her look like a forest queen. She looked like some kind of new and improved human female. I’ll tell you, when we walked into that ballroom”—our father is speaking of the Goshen Hotel’s dining room, which becomes a ballroom once a year for the Iron Boots New Year’s Eve dance—“I was as nervous and proud as I was on the day I married her. She led me straight through the door out into the crowd of people on the dance floor. Then she turned to me, took my hand and lifted her arm up around my shoulder. I forgot about the other people. As far as I was concerned, she and I were just out there by ourselves, dancing to ‘Stars Fell on Alabama,’ which is a song I’ve always thought told the biggest lie about a mean-spirited state that ever was told but which sounded, with your mother in my arms—I hate to admit this—romantic and sweet to my ears. So we danced, your mother and I, as if we’d never even met a Faulkes, let alone been Faulkeses ourselves and lived happily among Faulkeses for our whole married life.”

Our father goes on to tell us many more details of that evening of his and our mother’s Iron Boots adventure. Such as that at the end of their first dance, Doctor Lawson carried out onto the dance floor and presented to them full glasses of champagne. Such as that he and our mother found themselves seated at a little round table with Doctor Lawson and his friend Doctor Prendergast. Such as that when the band played “Burn That Candle,” Doctor Lawson asked our mother to dance, and that our mother who’d never even heard of the jitterbug let Doctor Lawson tell her what to do with her feet and even managed to do a kind of semi-Faulkes version of the jitterbug without completely disgracing herself. Our father says that even before she had her second glass of champagne our mother’s face began to glow. He says that after they’d been there in the ballroom maybe an hour or so, he asked her if she was having a good time. Our mother’s eyes went misty, and she leaned discreetly into his shoulder and told him no, that even though she was trying her hardest to enjoy herself, it wasn’t working and all she really wanted to do was go home and peep into her children’s rooms to see if they were there where they should be, with the little ones sleeping while the older ones read or worked on school projects.

“This dance is a Faulkes version of hell, don’t you think?” our mother quietly asked our father as she leaned into him. Instead of answering her, he asked her if she wanted to go home, and she told him yes, she did. That was exactly what she wanted.

4. Our Mother Tells Us About the Cancer
                               on a Saturday more or less during breakfast. We’re always up at our regular school-day time on Saturday, because most of us have our designated chores or activities. Even the little ones who don’t have assigned duties generally get up anyway, because weekend breakfasts are pancakes and bacon and we enjoy being together without having to rush to get to school or work. Saturday breakfast is also merrily chaotic, with one or the other of us standing up from the table for syrup or milk or juice or a book, a teddy bear, a Lego contraption, whatever, and there’ll be two or three conversations going on across the table.

“My dears, my creatures.” Our mother raises her voice enough to get most of our attention, though her tone is pleasant enough that we aren’t alarmed. And her face this morning has begun its changing, so that once we look at her, our Faulkes brains probably can’t help tackling the mystery of what’s up with her. “My dears, my creatures,” she says, “I’ve managed to catch a little bit of cancer. Or I’ve accidentally gotten in the way of a cancer when it probably wanted to go visit somebody else. Doctor Lawson thinks we’ve intercepted it in time to put a stop to it, but he doesn’t know for sure. So I’m going to have to go to the hospital once a week for treatments that will make me weak and a little sick and probably make my hair fall out. I will need your help.”

That’s when we know we have some very bad times coming to us. No Faulkes likes to say he or she needs anyone’s help. But the warning is as much in our mother’s face as it is in her words. Even though it’s Saturday breakfast that is always our time of talk and laughing and cooking noises, the room—the whole house—becomes very quiet. Our father’s head is slightly bowed, which we understand to be because he doesn’t want us to see how troubled he is by our mother’s news. She herself, however, smiles at each of us in turn and continues looking around from one to another, meeting our eyes. This is the face she showed us when she presented herself in the purple dress for the Iron Boots dance.

Leopold, who started walking only a few months earlier, flings himself against her, and she takes him into her lap. “We’re Faulkeses,” she says, patting Leopold’s back. “We know how to get through bad times. Your Uncle Quentin over in Stone County got his legs chopped off in a tractor accident, and those Faulkeses kept that farm going without missing more than a day or two of work. Quentin got himself a couple of these new genius artificial legs, bought himself a new tractor, and was good to go the next spring. A Faulkes will maybe flinch, but a Faulkes persists.” As if to demonstrate her point, our mother lifts Leopold off her lap, stands, and begins clearing the table. “Also, Faulkeses nowadays have dishwashers,” she says. “Which makes a big difference.” It isn’t an especially funny thing for her to say, but her wry tone of voice is just what we need to hear. We start talking again and proceed with our Saturday. Gradually Saturday breakfast becomes what it usually is, a ritual that reasserts our common blood by way of riling up the dogs under the table and bickering over who’s going to change Leopold’s diaper. Also, Eli’s starting to put one of the ferrets in the freezer before our father notices what he’s up to.

So that’s how it comes to us, the news of our mother’s cancer. News that we don’t realize we are getting at the time is the name of her oncologist. Later we realize she wouldn’t have mentioned his name if he hadn’t made an impression on her.

5. Our Mother Usually Takes Two of Us with Her
                                     to Price Chopper for the weekly grocery shopping, and though she prefers that it be a boy and a girl, she doesn’t much care which two it is who go. Whichever children are in closest proximity generally dictates the choice. Along with the five pounds that went away during her first two weeks of chemo, she’s lost some strength. She’s tried to conceal the weakness, but we’ve been alert to the changes we see beginning in her appearance. When she pulls the gallon jug of milk from the refrigerator, she uses two hands to heft it up onto the countertop. Also in the evening before she goes up to bed, she uses both hands to push herself up from sofa, and Peter says he heard her panting when she came upstairs one Sunday morning. The one of us who monitors her most carefully, Peter volunteers to be one of her shopping assistants this morning, and Emily says she’d like to go, too. These two often pair up for the least appealing of the family tasks, though the Price Chopper errand is ordinarily more of a lark than a chore. Our mother has often said that few places improve her mood the way Price Chopper does—she claims to adore the smells of the produce section, and she is particularly fond of the artisan bakery in the back corner of that huge supermarket. “Plenitude is what I like,” she says. She claims she never enters Price Chopper without thinking she might encounter Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg pushing a cart through the aisles. “I want to see them there together,” she once told Katie. “I want to see them holding hands, skipping around, being loud and chanting lines of each other’s poems to the other shoppers.”

This particular morning, however, our mother picks up a large cantaloupe to smell it and press on it to test it for ripeness. Halfway up to her nose, the heavy thing drops from her hands and thuds down into an astonishing splattered mess in the floor of one of her favorite places on the planet. Though the spray of pulp and juice in the floor testifies to the accuracy of her judgment of it as probably being ripe, our mother has misjudged both her own strength and the size of the melon. “Oh dear,” she says, according to Peter. But then, rather than do what he and Emily expect her to do—what, really, any Faulkes or any other person at all acquainted with her would expect her to do—which would be to go to one of the produce specialists who are always there to help and to ask for a trash can and a mop and to insist on cleaning it up herself, our mother stands where she is and begins to weep.

“She doesn’t just cry,” Emily says, “she blubbers like a little kid. Her lower lip goes all trembly, tears stream down her cheeks and she doesn’t try to wipe them away, she just keeps saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just so sorry.’” So it is Emily and Peter who insist on helping the produce specialists—there are two of them—who come to clean up the mess, and when they glance up to check on her, they see our mother has been surrounded by customers and Price Chopper employees, all of them trying to comfort her and assure her that dropping a melon in the floor is nothing to be upset about.

“Here’s the weird thing,” Peter says. “She looks grand and startling there with her tears and her wide open eyes and her apologizing face, her cheeks all shiny and wet. I don’t think it was just me,” he says. “Everybody who saw her came over and tried to make her feel better. She was like this living, breathing work of art. ‘Grown-up Deeply Upset Over Trivial Accident’ would have been the caption that went with her. She actually looked frail, and you know how vain she’s always been about her strength. People stopped and stared. None of us could keep our eyes off her.”

6. Old Stanton Faulkes,
                 the legendary South Dakota patriarch, had sayings that came down through the generations. “A Faulkes will maybe flinch, but a Faulkes persists” was one of his bromides. “Where others see obstacle, difficulty, and setback, a Faulkes recognizes opportunity” was another. Yet another was “The world loves a pretty sunrise and an eloquent sunset; a Faulkes prefers regular old daylight.”

Our father is our source of information about the South Dakota patriarch. At supper, if a quiet moment falls upon us around the table, our father will clear his throat and utter something like, “Old Stanton Faulkes claimed that work had a bad reputation—he said that if he had to choose between a holiday at the South Dakota State Fair or a ten-hour day behind a team of horses plowing a field, he’d choose the horses’ rear ends every time.” In our father’s voice we hear a tone he uses for no other kind of communication, a tone that causes us to go still with listening to him. The patriarch’s sayings and anecdotes seem to promise something surprising or shocking, but then our father’s utterances almost always end before they’re decently begun. There seems to be some kind of lesson in the deliberate disappointment of their conclusions. Our mother has a way of looking at our father when he comes forth with one of these additions to the legend of the patriarch. Her face takes on a smile that seems almost a willed effort to convey thoughtful respect. Because she directs her expression only to our father, not to us children, as we grow older some of us begin to wonder if she isn’t secretly amused by our father’s passing on the patriarch’s wisdom to his children. Or if she might be sharing a private joke with him. A few of us even wonder if our father might be inventing the sayings of Stanton Faulkes.

“Maybe he’s making up old Stanton Faulkes himself,” suggests Patricia one evening when several of us are out walking the dogs through the neighborhood. The very thought of our father bamboozling his own children throws us into a silence that endures for the rest of our outing with the dogs.

Not long after our parents’ foray into the Iron Boots New Year’s Eve party, our father finds a supper time moment that’s right for a patriarch installment. He clears his throat and begins. “Old Stanton Faulkes was one of the first people in the state of South Dakota to see a moving picture show. He saw Birth of a Nation in 1916, when he would have been well into his fifties. When Old Stanton came out onto the street during intermission, somebody asked him what he thought about the show, and he said it made him want to move to a place where he’d never again have to see a spectacle like that.”

Our mother clears her throat in a way that definitely echoes our father’s throat-clearing. “Old Stanton Faulkes was—” And she looks around the circle at us all, finally settling her gaze on our father at the far end of table. We wait for her to go on—and while we do so, eager as we are to hear what she has to say about the patriarch, we can hardly help scrutinizing our mother’s face. Until now, she’s never said a single word about him. Later that evening, upstairs in the dormitory, we agree that in that frozen moment we saw something childish about her, a lightening of her complexion, an almost silly and enchanting fluttering of her nostrils. And a slight loosening and puckering of her lips. “Like she was thinking about flirting with somebody who hadn’t shown up yet,” offers Jane, our oldest girl, who’s about to leave our house to go to college and who, we think to ourselves, must be deeply in the throes of thinking about flirting with somebody who hasn’t shown up yet.

“Yes?” our father says softly across the table. At first our mother gives no sign she’s heard him. Then she waves her fork, actually twirls it in the air above her plate, and says, “That’s just how he was. Old Stanton. He was like that.”

We’re confused. We feel we almost witnessed or heard something important. We were on the verge of revelation. Instead we came up with a meaningless observation and a fork diddling with invisible pasta. Gathered around Emily’s bed that evening our mood goes somber. “I’m getting tired of this,” says C.J., who being only nine has no justification for being tired of anything. We’ve been letting C.J. go with us on the evening dog walk only a few months. Then he blurts, “This stupid dying she’s doing!” and that shuts us up. Evidently C.J. has more to offer than we’ve previously given him credit for.

                   sitting more than she usually does. Given how the chemo has weakened her, her sitting is not surprising, though the manner of it is notably unFaulkes-like. She seeks out places in the house or the porch or the lawn where she can be alone. If she wanted solitude, she could go to her room and close the door. In our family, we are respectful of closed doors. Also our mother gives the appearance of posing. Or of being aware of how she looks. Instead of sitting back normally on the sofa or in one of the big living room chairs, she’ll be sitting forward and slightly sideways, with her knees very properly together. There’ll be a magazine or a book open on her lap, the pages of which she’ll turn now and then, but we have a sense that her mind is elsewhere and that the reading material is more a prop than something that holds her attention.

“Her legs are really pretty,” Jack says to us one hot afternoon when we’ve gone wading in the brook across the field from our house.

“I noticed that, too,” says Pruney, whose real name is Brunhilde and who’s thirteen now. “I’m not sure her legs used to be pretty. Didn’t they seem kind of big before? And didn’t she have big ankles?”

“Maybe so,” Jack says. “It’s hard to remember how she was before. I’m not sure about the big ankles. Were they really all that big?”

“I’m not sure her legs are all that pretty now,” Tony says. He’s fifteen and becoming quite a litigious young fellow. “It’s just that when she sits like that, she puts them out there as if she’s vain about them. As if we should give them special attention. But they’re just legs. Just plain old legs.”

“Maybe not Faulkes legs anymore.” Our Isobel is small for her age—fourteen—and very shy. She seems to go for days without saying anything more than “Please pass the fig jam,” or “Has anyone seen my navy blue socks?” Somehow we’ve taken to thinking of Isobel as our wise one, our child philosopher. “They’re like somebody’s legs on TV or in a movie,” she says.

“What about her bosom?” asks John Milton. “Has anybody noticed how it’s changed? How it gets your attention when you see her sitting out on the glider that way she does? Her shoulders back and her chest out like she’s trying to demonstrate good posture? Or maybe it’s just she’s tucking in her blouses now, and she never used to do that. I don’t know. I mean it could be just me.”

We tell John Milton that it definitely is just him. We tell him he has his mind in the gutter again. We tell him it’s not proper to be thinking about our mother’s bosom. We pick on John Milton like this, because he’s always so tentative and uncertain—but he likes it when we tease him. It’s his own special kind of attention, and sometimes he even gets it from our parents.

“I think she’s actually trying to drive us all crazy,” Pruney says.

“Should we confront her? Have like some kind of intervention? Ask her what she thinks she’s doing?” This is Tony again. If we have any kind of confrontation with our mother, Tony will be the prosecutor. He’ll be the one who has the nerve to stand up in front of her when she’s all dressed up and sitting out on the porch glider. Tony will be the one to stand there and say to her, “We were just wondering what’s going on with you, Mother. Why are you so different now? We’re not even sure you’re our mother any more.” That will be what Tony will say, a very slightly impudent edge to his voice. In our minds we can hear it without his even having to check it out with us.

“I’m sorry, children,” our mother will then tell us. This, too, we can play out in our minds. “I’m dying,” she will say. And she will look each of us straight in the eye. “I’m still your mother,” she will say, “but right now I’m busy.”

                     it would be a bad idea to trouble our mother with our issues. So it is our father we confront. He, too, seems distracted nowadays, though it is clear to us that he wants things to go as they always have. Whereas our mother came from another family’s blood and was therefore a volunteer Faulkes, one who chose the Faulkes way of life, our father is helpless and instinctive in his steadiness, his tending to his obligations, his day-in-day-out responsible behavior. This is late on a Saturday morning when we find him out in the garage, standing up on the front bumper with his whole upper body under the raised hood of our old school bus, half a dozen tools lined up on a rag on the fender where he can reach them. From up there, he turns to us to listen to what Tony has to ask him. Almost all of us, young and old, are out there waiting for our father to answer.

“A Faulkes’s religious life is entirely within himself,” he finally tells us. “It doesn’t have anything to do with God.” Which of course seems like the answer to a different question than the one Tony has asked him on our behalf. Earlier, we had to discuss and negotiate our question, because once we decided it had to be presented to our father, it was confusing to try to find the words for what we wanted to know. In fact, we couldn’t agree on what it was we wanted to know, but we had talked it out and settled on the words we thought would require our father to speak to “our issues,” as Robert called it. Robert recently took a linguistics course at Bard, and he explained to us how the word “issues” was really handy for a situation like this. “It covers a lot of ground,” he told us. “We use it all the time at school. In class and out.” We liked the handiness of it, and we especially appreciated it that Robert could bring us a little gift like the word “issues” from his college. It made up for how we’d missed him when he went away from our regular family life.

The words we settled on were Do you think our mother is properly going about the project of dying? Isn’t she sort of off on another track? Is she doing it right? That’s how we decided Tony should put it to our father—three questions, actually, though in our minds they are the parts of a single inquiry originating out of our issues.

Our father pauses after the first thing he says, and stays quiet long enough to irritate us a bit. He stands atop the school bus bumper with his eyes shut. We know him so well that every single one of us, even the little ones, know he has more to say and just intends to test our patience. Then he opens his eyes and says, “Your mother is fifty-two years old.” We refrain from telling him that we know how old she is. “Your mother has chosen to do this by herself. So it’s not our death,” he says. “We don’t have a say in it,” he says.

Then he completely surprises us by hopping down off the old school bus’s bumper and saying, ever so cheerfully, “Let’s take a walk downtown.” This is both normal and abnormal behavior for our father—normal because one of his favorite—and our favorite—customs is to invite one of us to walk downtown with him. It is his way of making an occasion to converse with just one of his children at a time. Today, however, he’s evidently asking the whole multitude of us to go with him. We look at him, then we look at each other—a couple of us shrug—and nod. Anyone observing us might think we are a flock of penguins simultaneously bobbing our heads up and down.

                we are such a spectacle that neighbors, passersby, and downtown folks turn and gawk and smile and wave and call out to us. “Have to get a license next time we do this,” our father shouts to us back over his shoulder. He leads us to the Laney Dates Ice Cream Palace, where he’s taken each of us at least once for our one-on-one Faulkes talk. At the counter, he lets us each order what we want, though instead of paying for it with dollars and change, he has to use his credit card. Like any contemporary Faulkes, our father carries a credit card out of necessity, but he uses it with such reluctance that he makes unhappy faces through the whole transaction. Also, there aren’t enough available tables or booths for us to sit together, so we head back out onto the Mall and gather around a group of benches out there. Once we settle into the situation our mood turns a little silly. Ice cream—and the sugar high that goes with it—must affect almost everyone more or less the same. The older ones of us realize that we aren’t often out in public together like this. It’s a spring day out on the Mall where there are also jugglers, folk singers, a magician, a hammered dulcimer player, and a mutated-looking old fellow who plays clarinet solos. Eli and Larry, who are in the same grade, sort of casually perform a couple of cool little gymnastics tricks they’ve picked up in middle school phys. ed. So in the spell of the sweet weather, we beg our Jennifer to do one of her tap routines even if a Faulkes wouldn’t ordinarily display herself in public. “I will if you guys will clap your hands to make some percussion for me,” Jennifer says. “That’s how we do it at class sometimes.” When she demonstrates to us what she wants, we circle around her and clap up a rhythm for her, while she does a very brisk tap dance out there on the red bricks of the mall. When she finishes with a twirl, a rattle of double-time taps, and a quick curtsy, we change our clapping to applause. That’s when we realize that shoppers and homeless folks and runaway kids and business people out on their break have gathered around the circle of us to watch the show. A few people toss some coins on the bricks near Jennifer, and somebody even throws down a five-dollar bill. At first it’s exhilarating—and the little ones of us get down on the bricks, scrabbling on their hands and knees to gather up the money. But suddenly our mood turns. Pretty much at the same time, it happens to almost every one of us. We can see each other blushing. We are Faulkeses, and we are embarrassed. We are ashamed. And these bad feelings make us really wish our mother were out here with us.

                                our father says. He waits to make sure we’re stirring ourselves, then heads off down the Mall in the direction of the south side of town. To follow our father is to be reminded all over again what a solitary fellow he is—and to be reminded of what’s in our blood. As old Stanton Faulkes would put it, “A Faulkes may love his family and strive to remain in the company of his family, but a Faulkes understands he is forever on his own.” Observing our father’s straight back and swinging arms as he turns uphill and strides up Shelton Street, we can feel our destiny in our feet and legs and lungs. Our father never once looks over his shoulder to see if we are behind him. Of course we are; he knows it so absolutely that he doesn’t even have to consider it. His mind is on what lies ahead. Even the fact that he carries our future in his thoughts—and that we have no clue about what his notion is—is pure Faulkes. Another kind of father would be communicating with us as he walks, explaining his plan, his hopes, his worries. Such reasonable behavior would be alien to our father.

He does, however, wait for us all to catch up with him when he stops in front of an unexceptional house on Lake Street. We older children have passed by it a few times—and some of us even have an inkling about it—but at the moment we can’t imagine why our father would be taking us to this place. The house sits above the sidewalk, with concrete steps rising to wooden steps leading up to the porch. Up there are half a dozen chairs and—we see as our father leads us up there—three or four middle-aged people sitting on the porch, two of them smoking. This latter fact sets a disturbance going in our minds. Faulkeses don’t smoke. So absolute is this axiom in our family that we’ve never even discussed it. Even the smell of a cigarette twenty yards away is enough to sicken almost any Faulkes, and here our father is guiding us into the immediate proximity of smokers.

“How do you do?” As he speaks in his loud, sociable voice, our father nods to each of the people on the porch, two men and a woman, weathered-looking citizens, their clothes a little shabby, their faces skewed in ways with which we are not familiar. We worry that they will not discern our father’s bemusedly formal tone. The two men do not return his greeting or even move in any way that we notice. The woman—whose yellow-gray hair looks wet or oiled and combed down straight on either side of her face—takes a drag from her cigarette, looks directly at our father, and exhales her smoke in his direction. “Not so freaking well, big fellow,” she says. She wears a sweatshirt and a huge denim skirt. Her expression resembles a smile, but it is anything but friendly. “You here to sell something, or do you have something to give me?” She stands up as she speaks, clutches her buttocks with her hands, and takes a step toward our father. “What you got, big shot?” she asks him in a lower voice.

“I’ve got my children here with me,” our father tells her. We can hear in his voice a guardedness but also a kind of polite request. He’s taken the woman’s buttocks-clutching as a warning, and he means her to understand that he will speak to her respectfully, in return for which he hopes that she, too, will be mannerly. He faces the woman squarely, which makes us understand that he must also be using his school principal’s demeanor. “I’d like my children to meet you and your co-residents. I think you folks probably have something to teach these youngsters”—and he sweeps his hand in our direction.

Youngster isn’t a term he’s ever used for us before, and it makes us feel strange. It also makes us imagine how the woman must be thinking about us. Her eyes seem to follow our father’s gesture. When they lock in on us, it’s as if we’ve played some mean trick on her. Her eyes widen and appear to blaze up; the corners of her mouth turn drastically downward. We can hear her harsh breathing through her nose as she looks from one to another of us. She might be trying to memorize the faces of gang members who are about to harm her. She turns abruptly away from us. “Don’t you see that sign, Mister?!” she shouts at our father, and she flings her arm out in a gesture similar to the one he made toward us. She directs him to look at the blank clapboard side of the porch. Our father looks, of course—we all do—but there’s no sign where she is pointing. It’s a white space between the house’s front door and a window. “Can’t you read what it says?!” When she takes a half step toward our father, we all feel how rude it is for her to move in so close to him. We begin to stir and murmur among ourselves. “No children on this porch! No children under any circumstances! Children will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law!” the woman shouts.

Both men stand up from their chairs—though their standing is more a crouching than an upright position—which makes us think they might be about to help the woman assault our father. Instead, they remain silent and shamble into the house. There comes this moment when everyone freezes in place—the woman and our father nose to nose on the porch with all of us standing on the steps and down on the ground by the porch. Then the woman commits what comes to be known forevermore in our family as “the ugly gesture.” Her mouth opens, though no sound issues from it. There is no adequate way to describe this: She sort of half squats, as sumo wrestlers do in combat, squeezes her eyes tightly shut, and clutches her groin with both hands. The hugeness of her skirt allows her to press its fabric into her crotch at the same time it prevents any exposure of her underwear or genitalia. We shuffle our feet and murmur, because her gesture really disturbs us—though a few of us older ones have seen Michael Jackson grab himself like this in a music video on MTV. What’s different is what the woman so clearly can’t help conveying—that she is experiencing pain at a cosmic level and that the pain’s primary location is in the fork of her body that she clutches with her hands. Her gaping mouth should be bellowing out a monstrosity of sound to match what her body so vividly demonstrates, but it gives forth only silence. We hush and stand still.

The porch door opens. A middle-aged woman in a navy blue pantsuit steps out onto the porch, carrying a regular paper cup in one hand and a small one in the other. She nods at our father and even lets her eyes pass over the crowd of us children. On the side of her chest is a name tag, but of course we can’t read it. She steps up beside the porch woman and speaks quietly to her. We think she might be saying, “There, there,” as our mother sometimes will say to one of our little ones who’s bee-stung or having a tantrum. The porch woman nods, closes her mouth, opens her eyes, lets go of her crotch, and extends one hand, palm up. The lady in the pantsuit turns up the small cup over the waiting palm, and porch woman quickly brings that hand to her mouth. The lady in the pantsuit hands her the larger cup, from which the porch lady drinks deeply. Then the pantsuit lady takes both cups in one hand, puts her arm around the porch lady and escorts her back into the house.

Our father stands on the porch with his head bowed for what seems a long time. Then he walks down the steps. We make way for him and follow him down to the sidewalk. When he turns north on Clegg Street, we know he’s heading home. Though we all keep quiet as we follow him and though his pace is notably slower than it was earlier, we feel as shattered as we might if we’d witnessed a hanging or a beheading. But this isn’t all of it, either. We’re so eager to be back in our home that we feel privately—because we don’t dare confess it even to each other—a crazy exuberance. We’ll soon be back in the company of our mother.

                          our father likes to say, “but this town is not beholden to us, nor are we to it.” Sometimes we think he’s just describing how things are, but other times we wonder if he’s not trying to program us to think the way he does—like our family is an independent nation. “We don’t need to be loved here; what we do need is exactly what we have—respect.” Our father will go on to recite what he calls the relevant facts, which are that we don’t really come from here; we don’t go to church here; we don’t run for political office; aside from our own place, we don’t own land, houses, or businesses here; and we don’t bury our people here. “We do vote, we do pay our taxes on time, we do support the schools. Your mother and I attend PTA meetings. That’s the extent of our allegiance to Goshen.” When our father speaks of our relationship with Goshen, he makes the Faulkes way sound reasonable, but among ourselves we agree that it’s peculiar. At the same time, though, we find ourselves aligned with the town and its people in the same distant way as our father. We have friends at school but not close friends. We’re not invited to sleepovers. Occasionally one of us will go out with a Goshen boy or girl, but those relationships rarely last longer than a month or two. We observe our neighbors, our classmates, and the townspeople—it’s even fair to say that we enjoy and appreciate them. We think they’re just fine. But we prefer the company of each other—our brothers and sisters, our parents, even our Aunt Beatrice, who can be difficult, and our Granddaddy and Grandma Elton Faulkes, whom we almost never see. “It’s like we don’t understand the concept of community,” Peter once complained to our mother before she got sick. She merely nodded at him and smiled. Robert, the only one of us who’s lived away from the family for any length of time, says that Faulkeses are genetically standoffish, though he says it in a cheerful voice. He’s not ashamed of it. None of us are, really. We can account for ourselves being the way we are easier than we can for the fact that the citizens of Goshen appear to like us well enough but nevertheless leave us pretty much to ourselves.

                                 in the comfortable chair our father has recently bought for her, her feet up with her ankles crossed on the matching footstool. To her right our father sits on a dining room chair, his back unnaturally straight. To her left, Doctor Lawson also sits in a dining room chair, wearing a jacket and tie and with a professionally pleasant expression on his face. Some of the little Faulkeses sit on the rug in front of them; the rest of us are gathered into the room, a few sitting on the sofa and several of the older ones standing in the dining room. We’re quiet and sad. It seems to us that the only person in that room who’s at all comfortable is the oncologist, but we have moved beyond our anger at him.

“Doctor Lawson has provided me with a medication,” our mother says in her new whispery voice. “Because I asked him for it.” She holds up a small orange plastic container with a white lid. This is the sixth week of her chemo treatment. She won’t hear of wearing a wig. Her skin is pale, but it also has a slightly rosy hue to it that prevents her from looking completely alien. The weight she’s lost in her face has made her nose and brows and cheekbones emerge so that she appears more sharply defined than even her high school pictures show her to be. And of course instead of her hair, there is the smooth curving expanse of her forehead sweeping back over the top of her skull. It is so pale that whenever she’s in a mood to allow it, we children have taken to placing a hand on her forehead as if to check her temperature. We agree that she feels cool to our palms. When she was well, she’d have told us she was busy and didn’t have time to stop what she was doing. Now she is mostly cheerful in allowing us to touch her that way. She will bend her head toward the extended hand. On these occasions, we sometimes have quick but intimate exchanges with her.

“Doctor Lawson believes that continuing my life should be my constant choice,” our mother says. “He says it is reasonable for me to think about that choice—every day, if I want to.” As our mother goes on, we make ourselves especially still so as to be able to hear her. “He also believes that you all—my husband and my children—should be aware of my choosing, and that if you want to, you should be able to speak to me about it. You should be able to tell me what you think.”

Our mother casts a glance at Doctor Lawson, and we see that he notes her doing so but that he chooses not to meet her eyes. Instead, he seems to be seeking out the faces of one after another of us. His own face remains neutral. Later, Sarah Jean says, “Maybe he’s doing research on us,” but she means it more as a joke than a serious thought. Our mother bows her head a moment, then she, too, makes eye contact with each of us in turn, so that—and we later agree among ourselves that we thought exactly the same thing—we understand she’s trying to speak as quietly and intimately to the whole room full of us as she would have alone with a single one of her children.

“I think it is my business. How I die. When I let it happen. I think it is mine. Your father doesn’t argue with that. But Doctor Lawson begs to differ. As he puts it. He says that the decision is mine, but that you are the inheritors of what I decide. He says my part is easy. He’s wrong about that. But he also says that your part is really hard. It lasts a long time, he says. About that I know he’s right. So I’m telling you.” She raises her chin as she says this. And it is clear to us that feeling is rising in her. “I’m telling you that I’ll hear whatever you have to say to me.” She waits to gather herself before she goes on. “But you children will have to forgive me—I really don’t want to discuss it with you. It’s not a debate or an argument. I’ll listen—believe me, I’ll listen. But it won’t be a real discussion. I’ll hear you. I might be able to find some things to say to you. But I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to talk about it with you.”

We might all cry then. Or at least the little ones might. Or she might—our mother. But we don’t, because we know she doesn’t want us to. We are Faulkeses. Even the littlest ones of us. Not a crybaby among us. She honors that. Even though with every day that passes she seems to be less and less a Faulkes.

                    our father drives us all down to the river in the school bus. He’s fixed cushions for our mother on the seat nearest the door. She’s found a dress in our attic that she’d worn in eighth grade that once again fits her perfectly. Her mood seems almost festive, and she’s strong enough to hold Leopold in her lap for most of the short journey down there.

“When your mother and I were growing up, this whole area was like the town dump,” our father tells us when we come to the gravel road beside the river. “Nowadays it’s hard to understand why we thought it was okay to treat the place that way. Maybe because companies all up and down the river piped their waste straight into that water over there. I guess everybody thought the river would filter the chemicals out and the trash would just sink down into the landscape and nature would clean itself up on its own no matter what we did to it. Anyway, we behaved like pigs. I remember throwing pop bottles out the car window on this road, right over there into the sumac and pigweed and honeysuckle. Faulkeses did it same as everybody else.”

Our mother has been listening. She pipes up, “But then Faulkeses were the first ones to pitch in and clean it up when the county and state got after us about it.” Her voice has some spirit in it that reminds us of how she was before the cancer and the chemo. “Faulkeses don’t try to be holier-than-thou,” she says, “but if they know what the right thing is, they never have any trouble doing it.”

Our father smiles. He likes hearing our mother talk, especially the way she is today. And he really likes it that she continues to appreciate the Faulkeses. The cancer and the chemo might be changing her into somebody else, but at least she hasn’t forgotten who she used to be. She’s holding onto Leopold with both arms, and she has both of them leaning forward to see what’s up ahead—a clear view across a wide part of the river to the mountain that rises straight up out of the water on the other side.

When we arrive at the picnic area, our father parks the bus and helps our mother down its steep steps. He’d help her all the way to the table except that she wants to show us how strong she is today. We know it’s silly of her to do that, because of course she will never get back her old strength—she’ll just keep losing the strength she has. Even so, the smell of the river, like a remembered secret from long ago, refreshes us. And we feel uplifted to see our mother, with our father giving her a hand, actually step up on the seat of the picnic table and settle her butt on top of it so as to be able to see the water passing by a few yards away. Some of the little ones climb up there beside her and huddle in as close as they can get, while the rest of us gather around.

“Roll on, old White River,” our father intones. His voice suggests that maybe we are in for yet another Old Stanton Faulkeses saying or anecdote. We hope not. We’re outdoors, the moving water excites us, and we are unanimous in wanting to be liberated from Old Stanton. “She never was close to being white, but maybe the folks who named her all those years ago were standing beside a waterfall when they did it. They should have called it the Muddy Brown, because that was her color before the towns and factories started befouling her; it stayed the same color all those years, and now it’s still mud brown even though it’s not nasty anymore. They say you can take a drink right out of the White River nowadays, and it won’t hurt you any worse than a glass of water out of your kitchen faucet.” As he speaks our father crosses his hands over his chest and arches his back while he gazes out over the water. Brown as dirt it surely is, but that river nevertheless has a grandeur about it. It’s a wide sweep of water, maybe a quarter of a mile from bank to bank. Over near the middle, the faster current catches the sunlight so that it looks like it might be transporting diamonds downstream. If you stare at it long enough—which most of us are doing right then—you can almost feel in your body the strength of that steady current. It’s relentless.

“Are you going to tell them?” our mother murmurs to our father. Which murmuring of course gets the attention of all of us. So they had something in mind when they herded us out to that bus and brought us down here. We give each other the looks that say Now we know they had a purpose in driving us down here.

“I was getting to that,” our father says. He looks downward and toes the grass in front of him as if it might be hiding a dime he’s just now dropped out of his pocket. “When your mother and I were kids, two of her friends drowned out there.” He nods out toward the middle of the river.

Our mother puts her arms around herself when he says the word drowned. We flinch a little when we see her do it. Our father doesn’t speak any more for a minute or so. Then he goes on in a quieter voice. “They were twin girls, both of them in the fifth grade with your mother. Bonnie and Shelby Sutphin. The Hades-bound Sutphins, they used to call that family. You all know them, kind of a beat-down bunch of people nowadays that live on the other side of Goshen. Nobody calls them hell-raising any more, because after that drowning, they changed their ways. Back then, though, Bonnie and Shelby were right in there with all those Sutphins—they were pistols. You had to be careful about daring those girls to do something, because most of the time they would do it no matter how crazy a thing it was. Before they were even ten years old, both of them had had broken bones and cuts that needed stitches and banged up knees that put them on crutches for weeks at a time. They were wild little girls.”

Our mother murmurs something that we can’t hear, so we edge closer to the table where she sits.

“Yes, they were dear children,” our father says, nodding his head, because as she’d meant for him to do he’d heard what she said. “And if they were your friends—it was always the two of them together in choosing who they’d be friends with—if they chose you, then they loved you enough to fight for you. That was how it was with those twins and your mother.”

“Bonnie was the tall one,” our mother says, her voice still low but rising as she goes along. “She was very smart in school, but she was shy and quiet, too. Because she was Shelby’s sister, and Shelby was just about the most fun of anybody I ever knew, and they did everything together, people thought they were both wild. It was stupid they said that about them, because if you got to know Bonnie, you understood that wild was the last thing she was. She’d have probably gone to college if she’d lived to be a grown-up. Or if she’d ever been able to separate herself from Shelby. But she followed Shelby, she did what Shelby did.” Our mother bows her head then and falls silent.

“What Shelby did that day—.” Our father picks up where our mother left off. “What Shelby did that day was to pester her Uncle Robert and her Uncle Joe to take them out in their fishing boat to check the trot lines the Sutphins always used to run out there.” Our father flaps his right hand toward the middle of the river. “They probably caught more catfish out of this river than any other family around here. But of course Robert and Joe Sutphin hardly got out of bed before they started drinking beer, and they definitely thought a certain amount of beer needed to be consumed before a man could take his fishing boat out to check those trot lines.”

“Bonnie and Shelby hated drinking,” our mother says, keeping her head bowed so her voice is muffled by her skirt and arms around her knees. “Bonnie told me they hated it,” she says.

“It will never be known whether Bonnie and Shelby would become the first non-drinking Sutphin adults,” our father says. “If they had lived beyond that day in the boat.” He settles into a silence that feels as if it might turn into a stopping place.

Our mother lifts her head. “Go on, Delmer,” she says, and he nods to her, sighs, and goes on.

“Nobody really saw what happened,” our father says. “But afterward people sort of pieced it together from what Robert and Joe told about it. Those young men got along just fine with their nieces, and most people thought Bonnie and Shelby learned a lot of their rowdy ways and saucy manner of talking from their uncles. The uncles and the nieces bickered and teased a lot, but they never fell into meanness. And nobody could feel any worse about what happened than Robert and Joe Sutphin.” Again our father pauses and seems ready to stop right there.

“Go on, Delmer,” our mother tells him. “I want it all.” He nods again.

“So anybody can figure out how it is in one of those little low-to-the-water boats with a two-horsepower motor on it and four people who are used to having fun with each other. The two so-called adults are not drunk, but they’ve got a buzz, and the two girls are riled up by the sunshine and the breeze and being so close to the water that it’s only about a couple of inches of the side the boat to keep the water from just pouring right over the side and into the boat. They can’t resist reaching over for a handful of water and seeing how it might be to splash with it. It’s Joe up in the bow being the one who’ll reach down and fetch up the trotline if they ever get that far out, and it’s Robert in the back tending to the motor and steering the boat. And of course it’s Bonnie and Shelby in the middle of the boat, which is riding so low that their butts are probably below the water. If you know the people involved, and you picture it, you can hear the voices, the girls starting to splash, shrieking whenever Robert twitches the steering handle just a little bit, and then Bonnie kind of play-rocking the boat side to side, and Joe hollers to her to stop it or he’ll throw a catfish in her lap. And of course she has to splash him. If you picture it like that, you can see most of the rest of the story without anybody having to tell it to you.”

He stops again, but this time we know he’ll go on. We understand now that he’s not teasing us and that it’s not so easy for him to tell us this. He’s having some difficulty keeping it going.

“There are two facts that have a lot to do with how things turned out. The first is that Robert and Joe, like most grown men here in Goshen, were wearing work shoes—high top ones with steel toes. It’s still a sign you’re a grown man when you start wearing those shoes, even though there’s no kind of work around here any more that calls for wearing steel toes. The other fact is also a common one for people around here. Neither one of those young men could swim. You’d think people living near a river and especially people who went out in boats to tend trotlines would learn how to swim. Not so. You ask around town, and you’ll find out that almost nobody here would claim to be a good swimmer. Now when I say Robert and Joe couldn’t swim, what I mean is that they probably already had enough experience to splash and dog-paddle their way out of deep water if they had to and if they didn’t have clothes and shoes on and if it was just themselves they were trying to save. And of course Bonnie and Shelby had never learned to swim. In Goshen there’s no such thing as swimming lessons, and even if there were, no Sutphin would ever have signed up for them. No Sutphin ever had enough money to think that some of it ought to be spent on learning how to do the Australian Crawl.

“So when the boat started taking in water faster than they could scoop it out with their hands and it was clear they were out too far for the boat to get them back to shore, we don’t know exactly how it went. Robert and Joe somehow made it back to the shallow water, though Joe gave up struggling, and Robert had to pull him for the last few yards. They said that’s how it was, and nobody doubts them. They also said that they tried their hardest to save those girls and that the girls panicked and pulled them under when they tried to hold them up. Robert even said he dived once and had hold of Shelby’s hand down near the bottom, but he couldn’t hold onto it and pull her up to surface. It doesn’t matter whether we believe that or not. We know how it turned out. Robert and Joe made it out of the water. Bonnie and Shelby made it down to the bottom of the river. And Robert and Joe both went on telling the story to anybody who’d listen to them, crying hard while they told it.”

Our father stops there. We all stay quiet and feel the breeze on our faces while we gaze out over the steady-moving water of the White River.

Finally our mother says, “That’s not all.”

“The rest of it we do know. Or at least your mother and I know it, because we were out here, and we saw it. Word spread around town in a matter of an hour. People called each other on the phone to tell what they’d heard. And we heard the rescue squad sirens when they came with their ambulances and trucks. My whole family walked down here, and your mother’s family came in their cars. In school I was a grade ahead of your mother, so we knew each other only a little bit back then. Such a crowd of people was out here beside the river that your mother and I can’t remember if we saw each other that afternoon. Women were crying, people were praying out loud and pacing up and down along the banks—the whole town of Goshen kind of went crazy out here, and there was so much wild confusion that our families could have been standing together, she and I could have been close enough to touch elbows, and neither of us would have even noticed the other. It doesn’t matter. We were both out here, we saw those girls pulled up out of the water. It’s something that once you see it, it doesn’t ever go out of your mind.”

“Shelby was first,” our mother says. It’s like she’s been waiting for our father to get the story this far so she can take it over. “Over the water we could hear the men talking out in their boats while they dragged the hooked lines along the bottom. When we heard their voices rising, we knew that the ones in this one boat thought they’d found something. They started pulling the ropes, and—oh, Lord, I’ll never forget this!—Shelby came almost bursting up out of the water sideways. At first I thought it was some miracle or trick she was pulling, something that would be explained to me later, because her arms and legs moved when she came up. So at first she seemed to have the life still in her. But a second later, I saw how her head was hanging limp and sagging back down toward the water like she was trying to get back down in it. Then I saw how she had the hooks gouged into her side and her hip and how the color of her skin was all wrong, like palest white turning blue even while I looked at it. From the time I first saw her body come up and got this stab of a thought that Shelby was alive, it was maybe two seconds to the next thought that was more like somebody hit me hard with their fist right in my stomach: That girl is dead. The word stayed on my tongue for days afterward. It was this awful taste that wouldn’t go away.” Our mother stopped and took a breath. “Shelby had on that black shirt that had been handed down to her from her brother and her old blue jeans that the knees were ripped out of. I knew those clothes as well I knew my own. And those rescue men just flopped her over into the boat like some kind of river thing they’d caught—I guess they didn’t have any choice about how to do it—then they sped up the boat to get it over to the bank where the trucks and the ambulance were parked.”

“What I remember then,” our father says, “was that the whole crowd of us went quiet, but we also began migrating over toward the truck. Not five minutes later, the other boat found Bonnie and pulled her up, too, and brought her on to the bank.”

“I couldn’t make myself look at Bonnie,” our mother says. “I knew they’d found her when I saw them pulling on the ropes, but I didn’t want to see her come up out of the water. I turned away from it. Bonnie’s the one I’d been closest to. Whenever they slept over at our house, Bonnie’s the one that came into my bed. If I knew Shelby’s clothes like they were mine, I knew Bonnie’s body, how it smelled and what it felt like to press my stomach against her back, put my arm over her shoulder and talk our way down into sleep together. Even our bodies had been friends.”

“The other thing your mother and I both remember from that day was Mrs. Pettigrew,” our father says. “Somehow that lady made her way right over into the crowd of scrambling rescue men and Doctor Pope and the trucks and equipment, she got right in there with them while they pressed the water out of the girls’ chests and did the artificial respiration and CPR on them even though everybody knew by then that Bonnie and Shelby were already long gone. The sheriff and a couple of deputies were in that crowd, and they wouldn’t let the uncles get close to the twins. They kept their own kin away, but somehow Mrs. Pettigrew just kneeled right down in the middle of it, as near the girls as she could get, and when Doctor Pope said it was time to stop the CPR, she stood up and wailed out in this voice you could have heard from miles away, ‘Dear God,’ she yelled, ‘Can’t you make them live?! Can’t you bring them back?!’ Mrs. Pettigrew was this prim, white-haired lady whose husband was long dead, a nice old lady nobody ever much noticed, but when she called out like that, everybody all up and down the river heard her. I guess it was a prayer or a request, but it sounded more like a demand or an accusation. It was like her voice came out of us. We felt it—the ones who were close to the trucks and the ones of us who had kept away from that crowd. She called out the words that we were holding inside ourselves. Then she didn’t say anything else. But from what she had said, we knew there was no more need to stay there. We needed to go home then.”

Our mother isn’t making any noise. She’s sitting very straight up on that picnic table. Her face is wet with tears that she isn’t wiping away.

                                      Pruney rasps out. She’s been upset all week. Now she seems to be grinding her teeth.

“They might not be thinking at all,” says Jack. “They could just be doing what occurs to them. Let’s take the kids to the river, she says to him, and he says, Hey, what a great idea. So they pile us into the bus, and away we go. When we’re all down there, that’s when it occurs to him to start telling the story.”

“No, no,” says Tony. “You could see they had a plan. They’d talked it over.”

We all knew Tony would disagree, but in this case we think he was right. They had a plan.

It’s just after dusk, and ostensibly we’re playing sardines over at our grandparents’ farm. In fact we’re sitting out in the hayshed talking. After enough of us went to her with questions, Jane called this meeting of the children. We were pretty spooked by our parents’ story of the twins drowning. It was like those twins got inducted into our family, and then they were dead. Jane actually said maybe we were grieving for the loss of our mother’s friends. But two of our little ones, Patrick and Jessica, had nightmares that whole week after the river telling. We’d thought maybe our mother or father would talk to us and help us think about that story. We’d thought maybe they had a way they wanted us to understand it, but neither one of them said any more about it. Also the visit to the porch with the lady who made the ugly gesture didn’t sit comfortably with us. And later on our father had never said a word about that, either. Furthermore, it seemed fine with him that that visit went the way it did. As if the ugly-gesture lady did just exactly what he’d thought she would.

William stands off a ways, because he has issues with space and what he calls “group think.” But he calls over, “Part of their plan must have been not to talk to us. Not to tell us what they have in mind.”

“Why would they do that?” Emily says quietly. “They love us. We know they’re not out to hurt us.” She looked around at us. “Don’t we know that?”

“I think her getting sick has made them both crazy,” Pruney says. “I don’t think we should even bother trying to figure out what they have in mind. We should talk about what we’re going to do about what they’re doing to us.”

“We can say no, can’t we?” William calls over. “We can say, ‘You taught us not to go for rides with strangers.’”

“Ha ha,” says Suzanne.

“Have we ever said no to them?” Larry asks. “Don’t you think we ought to try it out, just to see what happens?”

“You’re going to say it?” Jane asks. She’s very serious and a little bit mad, too, but it seems different with her.

“Maybe,” says Larry. “If we agree somebody should say it, then I don’t mind being the one.”

“Here’s the thing,” Jane says. “They may not be thinking. They may not have any idea what they’re doing to us. But I’m pretty sure they are absolutely certain they’re doing what they should be doing. For her, and for us. If it causes us some pain, a little bit of trouble, maybe even a nightmare or two, can’t we deal with that? Aren’t we Faulkeses?”

“I hate how she’s looking more and more healthy the sicker she gets. She looks like a rock star who’s recovering from meningitis or something. Her face has this angelic radiance.” This is Angela speaking, she’s twelve, and she’s had a fondness for the word “angelic” for the last two or three years. “She doesn’t look like any Faulkes I ever met.”

“But when you look at her, don’t you feel more like a Faulkes than ever?” calls William. He’s still over there, off to the side and acting like he’s not paying any attention to us. Maybe he’s just got extra good hearing, because he certainly isn’t missing any of our conversation.

“She’s still a Faulkes,” Jane says. “I don’t know how I know it, but I do. It’s like if you stripped away everything that makes a Faulkes look like a Faulkes, you’d have our mother. Does that make any sense?

Nobody answers her. Then Kathryn says that it embarrasses her having a mother who’s both pretty and about to die.

“I don’t mind it,” says Tony. Which surprises us—not because he’s disagreeing with one of us, but because we think Tony is maybe the angriest of all of us about our mother being so sick. “I actually think it’s pretty cool,” he says. We stare at him for a while and try to understand how he could think a thing like that.    

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