Chapter 03: SpinA Chapter by T.C. Porter
Word count: 4,794
Along Elmer’s walk to the barn, the first few steps are the most demanding. He lumbers to open the door, which is warped and rubbing against the floor. Its hinges are bent and corroded. The wind greets him rudely. He steps onto the small landing. The overnight snow provides firm and luminous footing. He scatters salt. Feeding invisible pigeons. This he does for his wife, Maribel, who will join him out here in an hour or so, on their way to the car.
The landing gives way to steps rounded from a half century of wear; rounded further by snow and ice. He scales downward, sideways. There is room on each stair step for the width of a shoe. He packs the snow into each step as he finds his way to the sidewalk. From here, in this icy blender, the ground is flat for miles and miles. The air is too cold for fragrance. Sky is black behind clouds low enough to make their presence known. Even without the motion-activated floodlight adhered to a tall pole between the house and barn, its bulb having burned out long ago, and even with the snowy conditions, and Elmer’s limp, his state of elderly near-hibernation, Elmer can walk this in his sleep. Over several decades, he has made the walk some fifty thousand times (a quantifiable reality, the math of which he has done several times during such moments).
Elmer is numb, frozen in a deep meditation that takes his consciousness from the frozen trail to the chore he does mindlessly, from the swirling air enveloping his small farm and the only town he has ever called home. Launched upon the runway of Scripture meditation, Elmer is so deep within the chamber of contemplation that he finds the hour's tasks complete with little recollection of doing them.
Suddenly back at the landing he cracks open the door and stomps his feet on the floor of the mudroom, which is filled with the smell of eggs and bacon, coffee and toast. He smiles and tells himself to enjoy breakfast, intercepting his usual urge to rush Maribel on days of travel. His unreasonably tight schedule, as usual, leaves no room for error or delay: Pick up daughter, grandkids and nanny at Green Bay airport, which is a couple hours travel on a good day; but first drive forty-five minutes out of the way (in each direction) to visit Elmer’s brother, August, who has been moved from Wausau by his son to an assisted living facility to be closer to said son, who never visits him anyway; and oh-by-the-way drop off eggs at the market; in the cold, snow and ice; mind you, still driving all the way back home, dealing with screaming babe and toddlers and all the emotional turbulence of two women " wife and daughter, not to mention nanny " coping with daughter’s marital unrest; dealing, likely, with the news of separation or divorce.
The old couple probably shouldn’t even be out on a day like this, driving to the airport to pick up daughter given the weather conditions and that she’ll be renting a car anyway. But Elmer and Maribel would not even think of having Mary drive without an escort. Nor will they wait an extra couple hours to see the grandkids. This is the Adameks way of saying, We love you.
Elmer gets the sense that this is one of those rare days when Maribel by effort or happenstance will slip right into Elmer's tightly knit travel plan. Perhaps she will not even require rest stops beyond those necessitated by his own prostrate-related purges. He gets this sense by the smell of breakfast filling the house; not ahead of schedule but certainly on time, which seems ahead of schedule given his expectation that Maribel would be an emotional blizzard of her own in the face of Mary's crisis. But she is actually whistling a joyous tune as he enters the kitchen.
Sometimes I worry and wish I could see, what lies ahead, what the future will be. But God calls me on to follow in faith, and He’ll take tomorrow if I give Him today.
Elmer sings along. One step He leads and one step I’ll follow.
Thirty minutes later, the car is running, its windows transparent, having been thawed from Elmer’s dousing with hot water boiled on the stove. Elmer stands at the bottom of the steps holding Maribel's hand as she walks down from the platform surrounding the back door. She's really the one who should be bracing him, but his gesture is about chivalry above safety. As she joins him at the sidewalk they pause, two bodies huddled against the backdrop of a cold universe. For a moment they share internal flame during just another day in the Wisconsin winter, which begets springtime as soon as this storm dissipates. The great warmth is knowing together that when they return home the house will be filled with love and crying, laughter and diapers.
There is a lull in the wind, giving Elmer a false sense of confidence.
The walk to the car is easy.
He opens Maribel’s door, holds her and guides her in. The engine is a hum, a hymn against distant winds. Elmer backs the car onto Church Avenue. Onward they go.
The wind begins slapping the car. Each gust rises in force, whipping side to side with increasing hostility. Holding the wheel Elmer realizes the wind before Maribel. She sees his hands, locked in 10/2 position.
“Elmer, be careful.”
There is something else on her mind. Another storm.
“We haven't talked about last night.”
She likes to talk when she's nervous. The wind smacks the car in waves. Maribel’s worry about the blizzard fuels her already heightened anxiety about daughter Mary.
“You know she’s reeling.”
“Yes. Mary’s reeling.”
“But she’s just not saying much about it.”
“Sounds like our daughter.”
“I don’t know where I went wrong, where I lost her.”
“You didn’t lose her.”
“But she won’t talk to me. You know what I mean. Why can’t she talk to me?”
Perhaps you talk too much. You don’t listen, so she doesn’t talk.
“I’m just left to wonder what’s happening in her life. But it’s no mystery, really. Wally’s been taken over by the money, the greed and the success. I’ve seen it for years now. But you know then I just wonder if there’s another woman. There’s always another woman. That’s what they say, and what I’ve found about these here things. And it all goes back to her own lack of self control. You know there’s no sense buying the cow if the milk is free. And that just set off the whole mess, with a bad precedent right from the beginning. And he’s just been up to own devices, doing as he pleases, taking advantage of her.”
This is all conjecture, Momma. And what are you talking about, “buying the milk for free”? That was twenty years ago. What does that have to do with anything?
“Are you listening to me, Ellie?”
“Yes, yes. And I’m driving. Listening to you and driving.”
“She’s raising the kids by herself. And then this nanny. We’ll see what she’s about. What is she, like the fifth one they’ve had down there in Florida? Hiring up a helper when that’s what family is supposed to be about. If she was living here she’d have plenty of help with the kids. Not just us, but extended family. Aunts and cousins. But then Wally picked her up and stripped her away from her home. He had none himself and it was easy enough for him to get up and move. But if our Mary was here then we’d be doing what we’re meant to be doing. Helping one another. Being family.”
“Right, except that Mary and Wally weren’t the only ones to leave. Everyone else left too.”
“But many of them. Most their cousins are gone. And families have broken up anyway. Have you noticed this, Momma?”
“For heaven’s sakes I have. People living in their little rooms watching TV. Middle-aged folks dating like teenagers. Everyone left to their own devices. ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.’”
“You’re right, Momma. But I’m not so sure there would be this wonderful child-rearing structure you’re talking about, even if they hadn’t moved. I think you’re being nostalgic for a time that wasn’t all that perfect anyways"”
“Slow down! Do you have to drive so fast! That wind sure is a gusting. Ellie, drive safe. Slow down. Just slow down.”
“Yes! Drive safe.”
“Are you correcting my grammar again, Ellie? What are you doing that for at a time like this? Just drive safe. You know what I mean.”
“Right, yes, ‘slow down,’ I hear you.”
“We’re not in a hurry. We’ll get there alright.”
“And you know our own son in law just doesn’t care about us. It’s like that time we went to visit them in Chicago when they first moved there, and we was there two weeks and saw Wally one time. Remember that? He wasn’t out of town at all or anything like that, just avoiding us the whole time.”
He wasn’t avoiding us. He was working.
“And I knew right then it was his guilty conscience. That it wouldn’t have surprised me none if he was sleeping with the secretary.”
He wasn’t sleeping with the secretary. He was climbing the corporate ladder. How’d you think he got to Naples? Not by sleeping with twenty-thousand-dollar-a-year assistants.
“They’re not secretaries, Momma. They call ‘em administrative assistants nowadays, Ma’.”
“Whatever they call ‘em! That’s not the point! The point is that …”
There's the Laatsch barn. It awakens warmth and the memories of a good day. On the left, a small building, the remains of the old estate that was raised after Arthur Laatsch passed away in 1973. But thirty-three years before that, on the same property Elmer eyes in the rearview mirror, his world was turned upside down.
He can mark his life by one vision. There was everything before, and everything after. And in the middle was one fleeting moment in time, where the universe stopped and Elmer lost his breath and was taken by a woman " a girl? " not yet eighteen years old. She was walking across the backyard of the Laatsch house, during an after-church picnic that ran long into the afternoon and past dinnertime. The sun was low over a late summer afternoon. Bratwurst from lunch was being reheated on the grill. Children played baseball in a grass field where Mr. Laatsch usually parked some of his tractors, which were lined up along the side of the adjacent cornfield to accommodate the kids. Elmer recognized her as Maribel Uecker, daughter of Gottlieb Uecker, the tenant farmer for whom Elmer worked. But she was no longer the girl he paid scarce attention to, far out on the periphery, where she existed with all the other town children, just a part of the landscape in a life that had been marked by tragedy.
Elmer’s first wife, Emma, had suffered through three miscarriages. The most recent took her life, and Elmer became even more introverted than usual. He was a ghost in the town, a zombie failing to perform routine tasks for the lumber company. Finally he had been let go, asked to leave and find a way to take care of himself. That firing catalyzed a bottoming for Elmer, and as he sulked through the winter of 1947 he bumped into Gottlieb Uecker at the local hardware store. Elmer was running errands for his brother, August, who was housing him and asking only that Elmer do some of the handy stuff around the house. Gottlieb was there as always, first of the month, going through the shopping list, for he bought nothing on impulse and allowed himself just one visit to the shop per month. Gottlieb was aware of Elmer through the church, and he employed Elmer years prior, when Elmer was a teenager, one summer pulling weeds. By this point he knew Elmer had experience plowing the fields, and he needed help sowing the seeds. Having gone through the humiliation of being fired, and with a strong case of cabin fever after two months shacked up with his brother’s family, Elmer was ready to get to work. And from day one he was tenacious to the task, doing everything Gottlieb asked and then some. By his second month on the job he was known to come by the Uecker house at days’ end, asking for more stuff to do. By then, the youngest of the Uecker daughters was off to the 4H summer camp. But she returned just in time for the late summer church picnic at the Laatsch farm. She walked across the lawn and everything else in Elmer's world went still. She moved from his left to right, smiling widely. Her right cheek was facing Elmer, fully alive, flushed from something in front of her. She was leaning into that something, and he got the feeling the something was life itself. Her nose was pointed forward, her eyes wide open. There she was, the last beautiful woman. There would never be another. His feeling was of being kidnapped, taken prisoner. He also realized the trouble of being captured by his boss's daughter. And while he didn’t realize she was still only seventeen, turning eighteen in September, because he was so compliant by nature he overstated the natural inconvenience that she was barely old enough to be picked, particularly by a man several years her senior. I’m in trouble, was the thought that came to mind. I’m in trouble, I’m in trouble, I’m in trouble.
“I think I like a girl,” Elmer said to his brother later that evening, after the Laatsch picnic.
“Alright!” said August.
“I really mean, a girl.”
“Well I’m glad it ain’t a boy you’re after.”
“No, I’m serious. She’s a girl. Graduated from high school a couple months ago. No older than that. But I’m pushing thirty, and already been married.”
“Mid twenties ain’t pushing thirty, El.”
“Maybe so, but this here girl I saw today is not much younger than Agnis,” Elmer said as August’s oldest child walked by on her way to bed.
“Who’s not much older than me?” Agnis said.
“Oh, no one, sweetie. No one.”
“Goodnight, daddy. Goodnight, Uncle El.”
August waited for his daughter to disappear down the hallway.
“Women mature faster than men, I reckon. Maybe your experience and maturity will do the young lady some good.”
“Don’t you think I’d be robbing the cradle?”
“Sure you’d be robbing the cradle,” August laughed. “Cradle robber! I’ll make sure to tease you publically.”
And he did. Augie’s good humor was and is a tonic for Elmer’s earnestness. Elmer looks forward to seeing August today, a point he shares with Maribel before realizing he is interrupting her.
“You are not paying attention to me, Ellie,” she says. “Either that or you’re interrupting me. Or both.”
“Real sorry. Just excited to see my brother, that’s all.”
“I’m happy you’re excited. As I was saying, though, it’s just like when Mary up and named her daughter Emily. I mean, the nerve of her.”
“You’re talking about that? How Mary named your granddaughter something very similar to"”
“Yes! Something similar to the name of your first wife, Emma.”
About this time, the front passenger-side tire runs off the edge of road, a fact that goes unnoticed in the tumult of wind and snow.
“I can see where this is uncomfortable for you, but if you would just forgive and forget about it, as you have all these years"”
“But the nerve of her to use that name.”
The car is fully on the road.
“Mary doesn’t even know about my first wife. And that was your wish, that we not talk about it, and not tell her " that we just bury it in the past. She doesn’t know about Emma. So you shouldn’t be hurt, and can hardly blame Mary for naming her own daughter Emily"”
In the vast whiteness, somewhere beneath snow and ice, somewhere is the road, and somewhere is its boundaries, the place where pavement becomes shoulder, where shoulder becomes ditch. These distinctions are blurry. Which leads a world-class backseat driver riding shotgun to consider: Why is he hugging the shoulder anyway? There’s not a car within a country mile. Just drive right down the gosh darn middle"
“It’s a popular name nowadays, Emily is. And it’s not Emma. And Emma means nothing to me, and hasn’t meant a thing to me since that first day I laid eyes on you.”
The car is off the road. Definitely off the road. Maribel senses this through the fog of snow falling from the arctic sky; everything before her a milky white haze, and below, the rumble of what must be shoulder, ditch"
“Elmer Adamek watch your driving, you’re gonna get us killed!”
"perched as she is on the far side of a wide seventies sedan, helpless to affect any safe driving, any steering back onto the pavement"
“Steer, Ellie, steer back onto the road"”
"gradually enough not to send the car spinning like a top, like the child’s toy wrapped with care in the trunk of this very car to be delivered to a happy grandchild in a few hours"
“Oh my God, we’re spinning, Elmer. Elmer!”
"spinning it is. Too abrupt was Elmer’s nudge back to the right. The wheels lost traction, and the car is spinning like a helicopter gone fatefully mad; Maribel with it, twirling, whirling a foot above the frozen earth, separated only by the rigid and creaky springs and the surrounding cushions of the Chevy’s old bench seat, atop a floorboard rusted in several places, one hole being just to the right of her left foot and covered with duct tape, a piece of cardboard, two rubber floor mats and scrap carpeting. The world rotates, white in every direction. Maribel is met with an immediate sense of remorse, a typhoon of regret, a sorrow deep and wide as Lake Michigan, the fatal sorrow of a person with unfinished business, things left unsettled. Oh, the regret. Oh my soul.
And yet, while spinning, she is comforted.
A flash of light. A buoy of hope. The future? The past? Is there a divide at all between a dreamscape and a moment on this earth, a substantial enough distinction from a fleeting moment in real time and the vapor of wishful thinking?
She holds her daughter again. Mary rests in Maribel’s home. Mary is renewed in the place of her birth. And Maribel changes the diapers of her grandchildren, and burp’s her grandson, Steed. Elmer holds Steeds’ little head and sees his own cheeks, hazel eyes, unblemished, filled with nothing but promise. Emily is breathing softly against Maribel’s nightgown. Her twin sister, Ashley, is asleep in the arms of Mary beside Maribel on the couch. Elmer places Steed in the crib, and quickly dozes off too. Maribel is alone with her daughter at last. Mary fills her in on the details of her life. And Maribel listens, for the first time really, with the ears of one who loves her and cares and is well adjusted enough to not let herself get in the way.
It is tonight and they are sitting in the living room and for the very first time it is an environment Mary finds comforting, comfortable " home. And in this autumn of Maribel’s life, they have a few good years together. Mainly though, they have tonight, Mary having flown into Green Bay from Miami, all of them having driven back to the Adamek’s little house outside Wausau, the house Maribel’s daddy gave Elmer and Maribel at their wedding reception, which was held right at the house; the house in which Mary was born, and raised up. The house Mary left for more enticing places. First to Eau Claire, to live with Wally as he finished school; finished playing football, really. Then closer to home, albeit downtown into the city of Wausau and that stately old home they rehabbed as he began brokering stocks, or whatever he was doing. Then to Milwaukee to manage the hot shot brokers. Then to Chicago where he built some sort of empire while Mary fended for herself in a penthouse on Lake Shore Drive, and began gallivanting around with the mucky mucks’ wives, coming home periodically with new hair dos and jewelry more expensive than all Elmer’s landlord’s tractors put together. One time Maribel and Elmer stayed down there in a guest room overlooking the lake, going potty in a room bigger than their house. But they never saw Wally when he was down there, and Mary was nice enough to drag her parents along to her manicures and shopping sprees. And then they moved to Florida, and it surprised Maribel none when Mary called last night in some sort of duress, and informed her folks she was flying home with the Emily, Ashley and Steed, and some nanny Maribel had never even heard about. But she wouldn’t tell Maribel what it was, what was the real issue behind this sudden trip home " her first, Maribel might add, since Christmas two years ago when Mary drove up without Wally from Chicago. So no, Mary wouldn’t tell Maribel what was wrong, and all this time Maribel knew her sweet Ellie was trying to explain to her why " why Mary wouldn’t talk to her, why Maribel’s demands were well placed but just so missing the point: because she didn’t know how to listen, because she was talking, and if you can’t stop talking then how can the next person get a word in edgewise; those were Elmer’s words. Perhaps he said it more discretely. Point is, Maribel never listened to him. She just got angry. And he started giving up, as Maribel grew denser. Even this morning, as they began their drive to Green Bay, she could sense his frustration and his loving, non-verbal nudge towards compassion, prompting her to a new way of approaching her only child, this grown woman herself now nearing middle age, this woman with a new sort of baggage and the burdens of this age where children grow up not with a proper mother " a lady " but something known as a baby’s momma " or worse, something she heard on the talk show just yesterday, a MILF, for Pete’s sakes alive. Kids growing up on their own, with a baby’s momma and baby’s momma’s boyfriend of the day, splitting time with a daddy who competes for best parent status on two weekends a month by outspending baby’s momma, which is no hard task, what with daddy’s toys, grown men carrying on like children themselves, perpetual teenagers. And here you are getting judgmental again, is what Elmer would be saying. It’s hard teaching an old dog, you know what they say. But Maribel is done with excuses. She’s just sitting here on the couch touching Mary with her side, humming her grandbaby into a deeper sleep and listening to her grown baby talk about whatever’s on her heart. And soon Mary’s talking fades into the midnight, and she dozes off, and Maribel places her grandbabies into the same bed in which she placed Mary, thirty-five-some years ago. And then she comes out to the couch and makes sure Mary has enough blankets and such. And Maribel sits down beside Mary and leans against her, and the warmth of their bodies merges as when Mary was inside Maribel, almost forty years ago, and Maribel lets Mary jab at her again as she did then, with great anticipation about the life to come, not holding anything against her and indeed having no recollection or reason to bother with petty grievances. And Maribel too falls asleep and awakens to the smell of:
Coffee. It’s too thick to be Elmer’s. It has that smell like burned dirt and chocolate. Maribel is surprised to find Mary beside her on the couch still, sleeping. And then as she feigns sleep Maribel sees between her thinly cracked eyelids, to her great delight, Wally himself, tiptoeing into the living room across the crooked and squeaky floor, pot of coffee in hand, platter of cups, sugar and creamer in another hand, his familiar biceps bulging through several layers of clothing, thermal underwear and plaid hunter’s shirt. As Wally sits, Elmer’s chair squeaks, and he sips his strong black coffee until half the pot is gone. Sometimes he looks out the window through the drapes into the new-fallen snow, now measured in feet, snow that will keep everyone together here in this tiny house for days, burning logs of oak and pine, baking and cooking and sharing memories and dreams. Wally looks out the window and then he looks at his wife, Mary. Looks at her for a long time, with a love Maribel hasn’t seen in his eyes since Mary was nineteen and he was watching her coming up the isle with Elmer, on her last walk as Mary Adamek. Two young people merging into one, for better or worse; families merging along with them. Maribel gaining the son she never had. As Mary wakes up, Maribel realizes this is another morning in their life, waking and sipping coffee together as a family. She loses all memory of the things gone terribly wrong. And as she recalls how the Chevy Impala turned into a child’s top, spinning out of control on the icy route to the airport before plowing into the ditch, she is met with a reality that where she lives now, there is no memory of the pain and anguish of that life. Memory is a sail filed with the wind of everything hoped for, realized or not. All things are redeemed, and indeed we do have but world enough, and time. Nothing but time.
Beside Maribel in this blender of ice and isolation " even in this moment of pending ruin " Elmer is still relishing Maribel Uecker’s beauty, professing his love for this woman who long ago quite literally redeemed his life. Seeing how nothing is lost on Elmer, he notes the irony of the timing of his appreciation, a warmth against the cold; and notes that it was just the precise moment of Maribel’s greatest fear " that she was nothing but a lifelong consolation prize, a gift to young Elmer in his time of need, not his first choice but nevertheless something to pacify him until that day he is rejoined with his first love in heaven, a fear so infrequently expressed yet always the cancer in remission destined at any moment to sweep her life away, or at very least, express itself as a volcano of emotionally charged insecurity and venom pointed at the offending unit, Elmer and his long-dead first wife " an upheaval that brings into existence this real and life-threatening situation of two old people trapped inside a whirligig twirling out of control atop a sheet of frozen pavement in one of the rural-most sections of Wisconsin, driving out of their way to see Elmer’s convalescent brother and hence driving into unfamiliar territory, crashing now it seems, thrown into sure death all from an agitated moment, lost concentration, negative energy manifesting into this abysmal end to almost a century and a half of collective living. It is her beauty on his mind, a beauty that belies all outward appearance. What he would have told her, for clarity, if he had but world enough, and time, just to reassure"
Three hundred sixty degrees of snow white, outside a car that is their fortress for two"
Rest, beautiful one. Just rest"
Swirling around and around in a blender of white.
Into your hands I commit my spirit"
Aside from a few isolated specimens hunkering down for a snowed-in day or two, there is not another human being for miles, no one to witness the rambling wreck going from thirty miles per hour to zero in a second; all that kinetic energy absorbed into the earth instantaneously. The sound, like a child’s helium balloon fatally pricked " a thousand at once " lost in an abrupt juncture of violence. And then there is but a fresh layer of snow, atop overnight ice hard as a tombstone, atop rich and ancient earth dredged long ago by glaciers barging from the Hudson to the Rockies.
All is white.
The sound: blizzard.
Wind; a displaced ocean.
A breath or two;
© 2012 T.C. Porter
Added on April 25, 2012
Last Updated on April 25, 2012
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