during End Times


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Published in Standard, November 17, 1996

(used with permission)

Far mountains jutted from early morning haze, the foothills with no depth, layered like gray cardboard. The highway closed the distance, and the hills revealed features. She recognized the mesa above the farm, its flat top just visible. Home.

A speed-limit sign flickered in the corner of her vision, and she eased up on the gas. She had to get home before she changed her mind, before that feeling in her stomach stopped her. It wasn't her home, anymore.

"Mommy, are we there yet?"

"No, Billy. We'll be there soon. See the cows?"

"Will I see frogs? You said there were frogs."

"You'll see lots of frogs. There are always frogs in the creek this time of year."

Four years. Almost four years had passed since her father had driven her off. She tried to block competing memories, afraid she would turn, afraid she couldn't return. That terrible day. The clinic. The yelling, the threats, the disowning. Mother helpless to rescue her.

"Look, Mommy. Orange flowers, everywhere. Do they make orange juice?"

"No, Honey. Poppies just make pretty fields."

"I'm thirsty."

Reaching for the ice chest, she became aware of her own dry throat. Billy became absorbed in the orange drink, swirling his straw. Hers was already gone. She tried to concentrate on the scenery, more familiar with every mile.

Her lips moved slightly, rehearsing the words she had written and practiced saying into the bathroom mirror. Her father would listen. If only he would listen.

The pick-up crossed the bridge marked 1940 on its end post. The water below still ran cool and deep. The bottom land held memories of digging earth worms with her father, the time she caught a limit, back when they were friends. Above lay lush pastures and vineyards, just green. Olive trees stretched in rows, great gray bushes on gnarled stumps. A white crane stood in a receding pool, immobile, head cocked, waiting for some movement. She wanted to come home.

Calves ran in a meadow, bounced and enjoyed life, never far from their mothers. She reached over and ran her hand through his hair. Billy blew bubbles in his orange drink. There was a time when Billy had no name. It was only something that made her sick in the morning and at night. Her father started asking questions. Flu, she had said, a touch of the flu.

"I smell frogs."

She sniffed the new grass, freshly chewed grass, a trace of orange blossom, the smell of the trail of a plow, farm country. "What do they smell like, Honey?"

"Like frogs, Silly."

The speedometer needle wavered. She edged the gas pedal down.

The clinic. It seemed the only terrible solution to a timeless mistake, the only answer to dreadful questions. No one paid any attention when she left for town. No one suspected. No one would ever know.

They came to the junction. She slowed, and Billy leaned from the window. A familiar white horse stuck its head across the peeled fence, shaking flies, standing in a mosaic of hoof prints baked in the clay. A dead branch in a budding elm held her gaze, a skeleton more mistletoe than tree. Thin shade reached to the horse, cross-shadowed the mosaic. The image seemed to speak to her, but she could find no meaning.

She shook her head, like the horse, trying to clear her thinking. Awareness came that she had made the turn and would soon come to their gate.

The clinic. She had made an appointment, not wanting to wait, wanting it over fast. Why were there all those people? She had lowered her head, covered her face, tried to push past. They laid themselves across her path, obstructed her, pleaded with her. She turned to run, and the others blocked her, yelled it was her choice. Then the reporter with that microphone. Then everyone knew.

"Mommy. Cows."

Cows had crossed a downed fence, mouths pulling at the high grass at roadside. The Barnes' fence was so aged it looked like some old-timer's barbed wire collection. She stopped by the cows and stepped out. They hardly paused from eating. "Shoo." She hit one on the rump.

"Shoo," and her hand slapped another.

"Get `em, Mommy. Get `em." Billy banged on the side of the pick-up, and the small herd trotted back into the pasture.

"Good job, Billy. We sure sent `em running." She set the post upright and carefully twisted wires until it stood.

Across the fence and field, an old trailer crowded the high ground, backed by a lone tree. Hulks of rusting trucks garnished the grass.

"I wonder if Billy Barnes still lives at home." She clamped her hand over her mouth at the unexpected words.

"Who's Billy Barnes?"

"A boy I knew once. You would like him." Behind the wheel, she looked at the speedometer. Zero. She sat.

Her father had seen her on television that night. That night. Her stomach seethed. She wheeled the car about and sped back to the junction.

The white horse shook its head. Billy touched her arm, his face confused. She turned around. Her lips moved slightly, rehearsing the words.

The windmill stood like a beacon. The cattle guard rattled. Dirt ruts led straight to the farm, a well-worn two-story with her window, top right. Her window. The one with the view of the meandering line of trees that followed the creek. The best room in the house. Was her bed still there?

The man stepped to the porch at her approaching dust. She saw him, gripped the wheel, forced herself not to let up on the gas. Her mother appeared behind him.

The picket fence loomed as a barrier. Or safe haven? Yellow daisies, bees buzzing, seemed to cry caution. The vehicle reached the porch and stopped.

He chewed his gum faster. Then his jaw locked, his feet set like granite. Her mother held his arm, her face trying to reach out to her daughter.

She stepped from the pick-up and tried to speak. Her words were gone. Tears dropped to the dust. "I'm sorry."

Billy crawled out the car window. "Mommy says you got frogs in the creek. Will you show me?"

Her father's jaw relaxed slightly, his fist uncurled, weight shifted to one foot. He looked at the boy, and her heart skipped. She knew he was going to smile. Her father had such a wonderful smile. Please, please, smile.

His smile echoed in her ears. "I'm your grandfather."

"I'm Billy."

A rough palm stretched and took the boy's soft hand in his. "Come on, Billy," he said. "We've got the biggest frogs in the county."