Backbone by Steve Edwards

Photo by Megan Stearns

Photo by Megan Stearns

A friend of Greg’s father up past Brookston said the last of the summer thunderstorms knocked down some trees and that if his father wanted he could have them for firewood. In the bright damp October dawn they spent an hour chain-sawing rounds and clearing dead limbs. Once they’d bucked enough to split and fill the truck, they took up axes. Greg hefted the axe over his head and brought it straight down, hard. He liked how cleanly the logs broke apart, how sometimes when one split open it crackled and carpenter ants spilled shiny and black from an inner vein.

He hadn’t said anything about last night. His father hadn’t asked. Clad in a checked red-and-black flannel shirt, a knit sock-cap, heavy blue work-pants and boots, his father lined up log after log, wheeled back and took mighty strokes that sent the split pieces flying. “I danced with a girl,” Greg said.

“I know.”

“I know,” Greg said.

On the way home that afternoon, the pickup sagging with the wood they’d split, they stopped for lunch at a diner and ate hamburgers and steak fries, watched traffic blur on the highway. “I liked her. The girl.”

“She have a name?”

“Monica.”

“Pretty,” his father said.

He dashed salt on his steak fries.

The highway home took them by rundown farms and wide cornfields, parallel rows stretching to the horizon with stalks the same pale gold as the hairs on Greg’s forearms. His father signaled and eased past a Winnebago with Michigan plates, two ten-speeds chained to its roof. The wood in back rattled. Small bits of dirt and root chaff trailed them like a comet’s icy tail. “Why’s she care?” Greg said.

“She’s your mother.”

“So?”

His father pulled in front of the Winnebago. “It’s the unhappy one who’d better change. Don’t you think, Greg?”

“Are you happy?”

“I’m not unhappy,” his father said.

His father turned off the highway and down a county road, accelerating past rows of long skinny houses, their lawns covered in leaves. They passed the Amoco Station and the Methodist Church with its message board out front—Success depends upon your backbone, not your wishbone. At the Wildcat Creek Dog Shelter they turned down a long gravel lane ribbed with milky puddles. Greg looked past the scraggly mutts chained up in their enclosures at the farmhouse in the distance. It sat in a grove of walnut trees, white with peeling green trim. His mother was inside.

 

 

 

At the house, he and his father put on gloves and made short work of stacking the wood they’d split, piling it near the back door. When they were through, they took up brooms and swept the truck bed clean. His mother opened the kitchen window and stood silhouetted behind the wire-mesh screen.

“You guys want Cokes?”

“Cold ones,” his father called.

She came out with the Cokes and handed them over and stood before the woodpile, admiring the work they’d done, asking if they had enough to get through the winter now. She glanced up at Greg’s father and smiled, and Greg could see the slight cleft in her chin. It was the cleft made her pretty. He allowed himself a moment’s hope that cleaning house for a Thanksgiving still a month off—the work she’d started while they were out gathering firewood—had helped her forget about last night. He’d spotted her in a crowd of parents after the gym lights clicked on: her familiar brown hair hanging down to her shoulders, a frosted denim jacket and jeans, car keys clenched in a fist. She looked around the gymnasium expectantly. When she saw him with Monica, her eyes narrowed. Whether it was Monica or that they were dancing or it was something else entirely didn’t matter: she didn’t approve. She said nothing the whole ride home.

His father strung an arm around her waist, said a few more cords and they’d have all they needed. Then he said he should head over to Marty Williams’ and help him pull out some stumps. “I promised him the truck.”

“That’s today?”

“That’s today.” He crunched his Coke can, climbed behind the wheel and cranked the engine. “Greg can come if he wants.”

“I’m the unhappy one,” Greg said.

“What?” his mother said.

“Nothing.”

“What’re you unhappy about?”

His father sighed. “Let it go, Dee—”

“You too?” she said. “You’re both unhappy?”

“You’re hearing things.” He reached out and touched the back of his hand against her cheek until reluctantly she softened. Then he glanced at Greg, puzzled, wry, vaguely angry—the exact look on Greg’s face—and finally shifted into gear. Halfway down the lane, the horn sounded twice. “Don’t be late!” Greg’s mother called. She crossed her arms and frowned. She didn’t look pretty at all when she frowned.

 

 

All day long at school Greg thought about Monica, replaying the scene: she’d wandered over to the boys he stood with and said nobody wanted to dance. He said he’d dance. Out on the floor, under the spinning lights, he held her with trembling hands that after a few songs steadied and inched further around her back. She laid her head on his shoulder. In the dark of the gym, it was easy. He moved in time with the music, her head on his shoulder, her small breasts pressing against him. In the light of day at school, however, with kids slamming lockers and laughing, he felt nervous, exposed. He didn’t know what to say. When he and Monica talked at lunch he just listened and smiled as she told him about her horses. She rode competitively: jumping fences and hedges and little ponds. The paper once ran a picture of her with her horse and a medal she’d won. Greg had seen it over the summer—she wore a black cap strapped under chin and khaki-colored skin-tights. He never thought that he would end up dancing with her.

“You don’t ride do you?” she said.

“No.”

“I should take you.”

It was after lunch and they were sitting at the picnic tables by the football field, holding hands in secret and watching everyone else mill around the parking lot basketball courts, the sidewalks. Greg thought about riding a horse, all that power below you, how it must feel to charge across an open field.

“Is it scary?” he said.

“Scary?”

“What if you get thrown?”

“I don’t know,” Monica said, grinning. “You could break your neck and get paralyzed for life, I guess. Why? Afraid?”

Up front, at the school’s steel double-doors, the ancient teachers on lunch duty—Ms. Thompson and Mrs. Pendergast—blew their whistles and began calling everyone in. Greg said he wasn’t afraid. “Then come with me sometime,” Monica said, rising and running toward the doors. Greg rose and ran after her.

At home after school, the two of them talked on the phone and it was easier. It was the only time all day Greg was alone. His father had been temporarily laid-off from the Subaru plant and spent the better part of his days fishing at Marty Williams’ farm pond. His mother worked until four-thirty, a nurse’s aide at the Veteran’s Home in West Lafayette, wiping tobacco juice off the chins of old men, changing them, getting pinched, leered at, called a whore if she looked back. That’s how he’d once heard her describe it. The job gave him an hour. Down in the basement, no one else around, he could let his guard down. He and Monica gossiped about classmates and teachers, complained about homework, laughed about funny things that happened at school.

“You don’t think I’d get thrown?” he said.

“If you came riding?”

“Yeah.”

“You could,” she laughed.

And he laughed, too. He liked Monica. She talked and laughed so easily, and was optimistic, pretty, kind. He was tempted to think that anybody could be that way with a big house and plenty of money and horses to ride, but if that was true then why did it seem like the rich kids were always the biggest assholes?

Upstairs, he heard his mother’s key turn in the lock. Her footsteps thumped across the floor overhead. She dropped her keys on the kitchen table. “Mom’s home,” Greg said quietly. “I better go help with dinner.”

“Come riding.”

“What?”

“Come riding sometime.”

Greg said he would, he would.

Then just after saying goodbye and hanging up, his mother appeared at the top of the stairs in her stiff white nurse’s aide uniform.

“Greg?”

“Yeah, Mom?”

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing.”

 

 

With his father temporarily laid-off money was tight. So it came as a surprise to Greg when on that next Saturday he and his mother and father drove into Lafayette to pick out a guitar at a pawn shop. His mother liked the music the Christian girls played when they came to the Veterans’ Home on Tuesdays and said it was about time somebody in the family learned an instrument. On the pawn shop’s wall hung two dozen guitars of varying shapes and sizes. Thunder-crackle blue Series-10s with whammy-bars. Imitation Les Pauls. Creamy Stratocasters. His mother had the clerk—shaved head, husky, tattoos on his neck—pull down a nicked acoustic. His father strolled over to the guns.

The three of them drove home in the truck, cramped, the guitar in a cardboard case between Greg’s legs rattling and jangling every time the truck hit a pothole. Greg didn’t mind that it was an acoustic. He could learn on it and get an electric later on. If nothing else, it meant he didn’t have to ask for an amp.

“Hey, Mom,” Greg said.

“What?”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t say it like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like I’ve never done anything nice before.”

His father had a piece of hard candy in his mouth, a cinnamon disk, and he pushed it from one side to the other, staring out at the harvested fields.

“He likes it, Dee,” his father said.

“I know that,” she said.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Maybe he means it—he’s grateful.”

“He better be.” She crossed her arms. “If I spend two hundred dollars on something he’s not grateful for. . . . He’d better practice. There’s no reason we couldn’t take it right back, Greg. What I couldn’t do with two hundred dollars.”

That week at school, he got a pass during study hall and went to the library and checked out a Mel Bay workbook with illustrated chords and strumming patterns. It was harder than it looked. Neither of his hands would obey, and it took him a week of sounding things out—listening to songs on the radio and hearing what he thought might be an E and plucking the top string—before he could even get the guitar tuned properly. Still, he liked to practice. By the time his mother had keyed herself into the house in the afternoon, he’d have said goodbye to Monica, closed the bedroom door, tuned up and begun.

One afternoon his mother knocked and poked her head in. She had an idea—they could carve some pumpkins she’d bought at the grocery. Greg held the guitar on his knee. “Come on,” she said. “Enough is enough, Greg.”

“You said to practice.”

“Greg.”

“I’m just saying what you said.”

Greg brought three medium-sized pumpkins to the back stoop and they spread out newspaper. His mother collected the knives. He didn’t like seeing her with knives. She’d cut her finger slicing turkey at Thanksgiving last year and bled all over the tablecloth. There are no accidents, an aunt of his said.

With a black marker he made a ring around the pumpkin’s dry stem. He colored the eyes, nose and mouth, leaving square gaps for teeth. His mother carved a lid, lifting it out and in one smooth motion slicing off the stringy seeds that clung to its underside. Greg gutted the pumpkin, skimming its ribs with his fingernails. She asked him about Math class, if he understood this week’s homework lesson. He said Math was fine. “Has Mr. Heathcoate lightened the load on you guys at all?” she asked him.

“He’s a jerk.” Greg scooped handfuls of orange gut and plopped them on the newspaper. “He told a kid he was slow.”

“To his face—?”

“Yeah.”

“He is a jerk.”

“Sometimes he wears this ring. It’s his college class ring. He turns it over so the stone’s facing down and he acts like he’s going to pat you on the head or something. Except what he does is hit you with the ring.”

“He’s done this to you?”

Greg looked up.

“No.”

“What?”

“No,” he said.

“He’s never done it to you?”

“He did it to Danny Biblehauser.”

“Well, he probably deserved it.” A smile flashed on his mother’s face but just as quickly disappeared. “I don’t like him calling kids slow.”

They worked quietly and for a moment Greg felt as though he could really talk to his mother, tell her anything, tell her even that Monica wanted him to come ride horses sometime. With his mother right there working quietly on her pumpkin it seemed possible that she could be happy for him. She dropped a handful of stringy gut onto the cement and used the sharp edge of her knife to gently scrape her palm. Then she pulled her wedding band from her finger, swabbed it with a pinkie and slid it back on.

“You really like that guitar, don’t you,” she said, looking at her ring, then looking at Greg over the tops of her glasses. “I suppose the next thing you’ll want is lessons we can’t afford. Best to just put that out of your mind, Greg.”

“I don’t need lessons,” he said.

“Oh no?”

“I’m learning.”

“But don’t you want to get better? If you don’t want to get better, Greg, I can just take that guitar back right now. . . .”

As Greg pushed the knife into his pumpkin, his hand slipped and the blade grazed the underside of his middle and ring fingers. Not a deep cut, but it stung. “Your father’s put a roof over our heads,” his mother went on, oblivious, poking a triangular eye-hole and shaking it off her knife-tip. “Isn’t that enough, Greg?”

Greg sucked the cut, wincing.

There are no accidents.

“Isn’t it, Greg?”

“Huh?”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.”

“See there,” she said. “You’re not slow.”

Finished with the pumpkins, he took them to the front porch and set three candles inside. Down the lane at the shelter, the dogs were barking. He knew that if no one claimed them they’d be put to sleep. But better that than slowly starving to death, his father said. His father turned things around like that. His father wasn’t unhappy. Greg rubbed the cut on his fingers. Shivered. Back inside, in the kitchen, he heard his mother getting dinner started, muttering about something. The feeling that he could tell her anything—and the thought that he almost had—horrified him.

 

 

A few nights later, after dinner, his father having rolled in late for the second night in a row, Greg’s mother complained of a headache and sent them uptown for aspirin. It was what she always did when she was angry but didn’t feel like bickering: she’d feign an ailment, come up with some errand for them to run. Greg and his father put on their coats, shuffled outside. It was seven o’clock, getting dark, a cool breeze blowing down the lane. Uptown, they walked past real estate offices, junk-antique stores closed for the night. Greg could smell the beer on his father’s breath and felt sorry for him. He thought that if his father and mother ever divorced, he’d go live with his father.

Inside McAllen’s drugstore, his father blinked under the bright fluorescent lights, took a few bills from his wallet and paid for the bottle of aspirin and a soda for Greg. “How’s that girlfriend of yours?” he said, out on the street afterward. He’d bought himself a bag of pretzels and was popping them into his mouth, one at a time. Talking with his mouth full. “If you want to take her to the movies sometime, Greg, I’d probably give you a lift. Wouldn’t be anybody’s business.”

“No thanks,” Greg said.

“No?”

Greg shrugged. “I don’t know.”

His father offered him the bag of pretzels and he took one. He thought his father might say something else, about Monica, or the movies, but he didn’t. They walked down Main in the glow of empty shop windows, taking their time, the only people out and about tonight. If his mother wasn’t ready for them at home it wouldn’t be any good to go back now. “Do men and women think alike?” Greg said.

“Do we think alike?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know.”

They approached to the lane back to their house and stopped. Greg could see the soft flickering of the candles he’d set inside the pumpkins they’d carved earlier. His mother had lit them. “Monica has horses,” he said, glancing at his father, then glancing away, shrugging. “She wants to have me over.”

His father looked at him.

“Well?”

Greg tried to imagine riding a horse, charging across an open field. It had come so naturally the other day but now he couldn’t see it. Across the street at the dog shelter, one of the dogs noticed them and started barking. A single manic voice in the night. As Greg and his father crossed the street and started home down the lane, other dogs started barking, jumping against their chains, teeth flashing white in the darkness. If they broke through the fence, Greg thought, they would rip us to shreds.

 

 

Monica lived in the country in a big white house backed by forty acres of woodlands and creek valley. Greg’s father whistled as they pulled up, said, “Not bad, Greg. Not bad.” Greg looked out at the house and a pole-barn in the distance. A John Deere peered out of the shadows. A calico licked its paw by a rain gutter. It was a Saturday, not a cloud in the sky. A half dozen horses cropped grass in the far pasture.

“You ready?” his father said.

Greg shrugged.

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t be scared. Have fun.”

They got out of the truck and Monica met them at the front door in blue jeans and a windbreaker, her hair in a ponytail. She introduced herself to Greg’s father, shook his hand and smiled, said her folks were out in the barn.

The calico skittered off as they approached and Monica said that they’d used to have tame cats but something always got after them, foxes, coyotes, so now they left them wild, figured they were safer. Greg’s father smiled at Greg, patted him on the back and winked. He liked Monica—Greg could tell. In the barn, they found Monica’s mother and father cleaning up and decorating for a Halloween party—hanging scary-looking saws and implements on the walls, covering it all with fake cobwebs. The party was something they did every year, Monica said, for her father’s law partners.

“So nice to finally meet you, Greg,” Monica’s mother said, pulling off a smudged glove and offering Greg a hand. She was tall and thin and tan, a few strands of silver in her curly brown hair. She introduced herself to Greg’s father, saying it was nice to have a face to imagine for the other end of the phone line.

“Does Greg have a cell phone?”

“Not yet. No.”

“Monica doesn’t either.”

“Gail McCaffrey,” Monica’s father said, extending a hand to Greg, then to his father. He was slightly taller than Monica’s mother but stooped shouldered and bald on top. A toothpick hung in the corner of his mouth.

“Daryl,” Greg’s father said.

“She doesn’t have a cell phone,” Monica’s father said, taking the toothpick out of his mouth and pointing it at her, raising his eyebrows, “but she has an I-pod she’s always got plugged into her head. And three of these horses are supposedly hers.” Monica just rolled her eyes as he went on teasing her. “But who do you think is out here at five a.m. in the dead of winter mucking stalls? Who could it be?”

“Hmmm,” Greg’s father said.

“Dad,” Monica said.

“Well?”

“Gail likes to play lawyer with his family,” Monica’s mother interjected, grinning. “But do the rest of us appreciate it?”

Greg’s father laughed and said he doubted it and the three of them went on talking. Greg looked at Monica. She was scuffing dust on the barn floor with the toe of her boot, thumbs hooked in her belt loops. She hardly seemed like someone whose father was a lawyer, who had money and horses and land, and her father hardly fit the part of a man who worked in an office. He was ruddy-faced with a crooked smile, a few dark inward-turning teeth. The cuffs of his flannel shirt had ripped and frayed, and his hands were calloused. Greg liked him. He liked her mother, too, so friendly and interested and eager to talk—he liked standing here, the five of them, talking about nothing at all really. They didn’t even have to ride horses: he was already glad he’d come.

“Give our best to your wife,” Monica’s mother called once they’d finished chatting and said goodbye and Greg’s father was heading down the drive to his truck. “We’ll have to have you both over next time.”

“Sure thing,” he said.

He waved goodbye and slipped into the truck and was gone, speeding down the county road out of sight. Greg watched him a moment, loving his father for bringing him here but feeling sad somehow, too. Then he felt something at his ankles. The calico had returned and was rubbing itself against him, arching its back, flicking a paw at his shoelace.

“You okay?” Monica said.

They spent the rest of the afternoon riding horses. Monica was a patient teacher. She explained to Greg how the saddle and stirrups worked, how to sit up straight and hold on tight with his legs, how to pull on the reins, how to dig in his heels. Greg felt nervous at first, rickety and off-balance, but Monica was right there beside him to guide him along. Step by step they eased across the pasture and onto a trail through the woods and out around a two-acre farm pond. It was all very beautiful: the warmth of an October afternoon, sunlight on the water, the sound of hooves drifting through fallen oak leaves. Greg’s horse was an old paint named Shorty, with a belly like a fire-barrel and a white diamond blazing his face. Monica’s was named Marilyn, a yellow-white palomino with blue eyes and a long shaggy tail. In time, as Greg felt more and more confident—as he eased his grip on the reins, as he figured out how to comfortably sit up straight in the saddle—he stopped worrying about falling and breaking his neck. He almost wished he could give the horse a kick and take off across the fields.

On the far side of the pond they dismounted and walked around the edge of the water, holding hands. Several smallmouth bass—dark hovering ovals—floated over their old spawn beds in the shallows. Black and white dragonflies buzzed a patch of cattails gone to seed. Greg wondered if they knew that winter was coming, the bass, the dragonflies. On a day like today, so warm and mild, it could be easy to forget. But maybe that was for the best, one more summer day before the cold settled in.

“Don’t tell my dad you guys have a pond back here,” Greg said. “He’ll come out with his fishing pole and never leave.”

“I like your dad.”

They came to an overturned canoe with weeds growing up around it, sat down, looked at the water. Monica told him his legs would probably be sore tomorrow. He said they already were. They looked at each other, shy and smiling, then leaned in, kissed. Once it was over they looked out at the water again. Monica said that in the winter, when it got really cold, she and her father would come out here with their ice skates and a thermos of hot cocoa and spend the day skating. Even after they got cold, she said, they’d  stay out here, because it felt so good to go gliding across the ice. Greg could picture the ice, the skates, the thermos of hot cocoa. They looked at each other again, leaned in and kissed again, longer this time. When the kiss ended they rose from the canoe and kept walking around the edge of the pond, holding hands.

It was only later, driving home with his father, that any of it seemed real. Greg had to remind himself that he and Monica had ridden horses, kissed. Even after reminding himself, replaying the scene over and over in his mind—their faces coming together, the warmth of her lips on his—it was still hard to believe. It felt good. Better maybe than he’d ever felt about anything.

But it scared him, too. He thought of Halloween and the party Monica’s parents were throwing. He thought of Monica’s mother saying to his father, “Give our best to your wife.” He thought of his mother. Every year on Halloween she sat on the front porch with a bowl of candy, disappointed, because no one ever came. From where she sat she could see them, the children in their costumes, gangs of them, walking together and laughing. But the lane was too dark, the dogs always barking. No one came. She pretended it didn’t bother her, but Greg could tell it did. Really, everything did. He wondered how his father could love somebody who everything bothered. Or maybe his father didn’t love her. He didn’t know. He looked at his father a second, his hands loose on the wheel, then turned and stared straight ahead at the long county road home.

 

 

Steve Edwards lives and writes in Littleton, Massachusetts. He is author of the memoir, Breaking Into the Backcountry. His work has appeared in AGNI Online, Electric Literature No. 6 and The Fiddleback.

 

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