Created: November 26, 1995
Clem finally awoke in Dr. Wiloughbies office. The first thing he saw were the tiny dust motes traversing a streak of late-afternoon sunlight slipping through the curtained window. At the time, very little else seemed to register.
"You had a mighty close call there, son." His doctors face appeared in front of him and then quickly disappeared in the glare of the small light that was probing his pupils.
"Yeah," he agreed, having absolutely no idea of what the doctor was talking about, but certain he was right.
"How are you feelin?"
Clem moved a little, tentatively checking his arms and legs. "Little stiff and a heck of a headache. Other than that, doin fine."
"Know where you are?"
"Your office." He paused a second or two, "Right?" The doctor nodded.
"Remember your name?"
The doctor relaxed a little.
Like a pair of wobbly legs on a newborn foal, Clems mind was a little slow getting a steady footing. He stared at the doctor for a moment. "Dr. Wiloughbie," he said when the face and the name finally snapped together. "What happened?"
"You got hit by lightning. You were coming back in from the north forty just before the storm hit. Knocked you right off your tractor, your wife said. That old John Deere probably saved your life."
"Its funny, doc. I can sorta remember comin back in from the field, then the next thing I know Im wakin up here."
"Ill tell ya, Clem. Most of the folks I know whove gotten hit by lightning wound up in the funeral parlor, not here. But the couple who did, had a problem rememberin things for a while. Youll be okay."
He started to sit up but a painful, thousand-pound weight in his head pushed him back down. It was hard to swallow. His mouth was dry and tasted like one of little Lisas chickens had curled up and died there.
"Hey doc, can I have a glass of water. A couple of aspirin wouldnt hurt, either."
"Sure enough. You just lie back for a while. Your wifes here. She can take you home when you steady-up a little."
"Thanks, doc. Thanks for everything."
"Thats okay, son. Thats what Im here for."
Clem sat back and watched as Mary Jo skillfully guided the old Ford pickup around the worst of the potholes on the drive home. The smooth curves of her face glowed in the waning sunlight. She got a few miles on her now, but shes lookin better than ever, he thought about telling her, but wasnt sure how shed take it. So he just smiled a little and enjoyed the feeling of being alive to watch another sunset. Good, healthy farmland ran from horizon to horizon, glowing gold under a calico sunset. His wife didnt seem to notice any of that and just stared ahead at the road. The worry lines on her forehead did her talking for her, Clem thought.
It was dark by the time they turned down the long driveway to their house. A couple of bare light bulbs strung between two wooden posts barely lit the yard that looked kind of unkempt and overgrown. Clem made a mental note to do some work on it when he could.
"Becky and Lisa are spendin the night over the Claybornes. If youre hungry, Ill fix us some supper." She stopped the truck at the end of a long-worn pair of tire tracks.
"Hungry as a horse," he smiled. Mary Jo looked at him kind of funny. "Its been a long day."
He thought he heard her say something like "they all are...", but the door of the truck slammed shut while she was talking.
"Ill go clean up," he said when they were inside of the house.
The face that stared back at him from the bathroom mirror was an awful sight. A three-day growth of beard clung to his face, his neck was covered with a muck of dirt and sweat and his thick, black hair was matted thick with the same stuff. The sour smell in the confined space of the bathroom made him a little sick and he started running the bath water as hot as he could stand.
"Yall fancied-up. You goin into town again tonight," Mary Jo asked when he came down after putting on the only shirt he thought was decent enough to wear at a dinner table with his wife. He thought it was a pretty strange question. Maybe she was just being funny.
"Now, what would I do that for when Ive got the prettiest gal in the county right here?" She paused and stared at him for a moment and then went on to slap a lump of mashed potatoes onto his plate.
"You know, Clem, it scared me silly when I saw you come flyin off the tractor after that lightning bolt hit. I didnt know how Id be able to take care of this place on my own." Clem nodded, accepting this as an explanation of why shed been acting like she had. "You sure youre feeling okay?"
"Yeah, better and better by the minute. But, my mind still feels kind of hazy. Its like that thin layer of morning fog we get over the fields sometimes in late September. I look around and I can remember the house, but not whats in any of the closets. Its kinda like that. The doc said itd get better over time."
"Hows your dinner?"
"Best meal I can remember," he answered with a wry, half-smile. They both laughed hard and it felt good.
When they finished dinner, he got up and started helping her clear the table. "Now, you just go and take it easy. Ill finish up here." He nodded, feeling full and happy.
When he got into the parlor, sat down on that over-stuffed chair of his and put his feet up, his memory hit a blank spot. It was like an old, familiar road coming to a dead end a long way short of where it should have, with nothing but empty prairie from there on. He couldnt remember what he usually did after dinner. There some of Mary Jos books on a shelf at the other end of the room beside the Stromberg-Carlson she liked to listen to. Across from the window was a low, wide, mahogany cabinet. Attractive, stained-glass flowers adorned its closed doors. For the life of him, he couldnt remember what was inside. He got up and cautiously opened one of the doors, feeling something like an nosy house guest. He let out a low whistle. There were enough liquor bottles in there for half the county to have themselves one barn-burner of a hoe-down. All he could figure was that he must have stocked up during prohibition or something of that sort.
He wandered across the room and ran his hand over his wifes thinly-padded, straight-back chair, sat down and switched on the radio. When it warmed up, he twisted the dial around looking for some sort of entertainment show. He was happy to hear Jack Bennys familiar theme coming in strong from a local station.
The loud peal of laughter brought his wife to the door with a dish towel in her hands and a look on her face like she had heard a gun go off. She looked at the low cabinet and then at her husband, his face red, tears in his eyes and his chest heaving. He looked up at her.
"Im sorry, when I heard the sound of Jacks old Maxwell starting up, I just couldnt hold it in any longer." He motioned her over to come and listen and, when she got close enough, he playfully pulled her down into his lap. She let out a quick little scream and landed in his arms.
"What a fresh young man you are," she pretended to reprimand him and kissed his cheek. By the time they headed up to bed, Clem had convinced himself that there was plenty of room in the house for another baby.
There was no doubt about it. The yard was a mess, even worse than it looked the night before. He told Mary Jo, "The cornll take care of itself for a few days. Ive let this place go for too long. It aint even fit for the chickens."
He found an old grocery sack and started picking up the wind-scattered pieces of trash that were lying about. Lisa, his youngest, watched him for a few minutes, found a bag of her own and started to help. Clem looked up and saw Becky looking out at them from a window. He just smiled up at her and went back to work.
After lunch, he started up the John Deere and moved it back by the barn. Lisa hopped up onto his lap for the ride. The engine sounded a little different. He realized that the top of the exhaust pipe, just a few feet from where he sat, was blown clean off. He figured thats where the lightning hit. He reached up and fingered the old, gray felt hat that sat on his head and said, "Yknow, Lisa. Im thinkin that its about time I started going to back to church with you on on Sundays."
Ignoring the protest of the dozen or so occupants, Clem let himself into Beckys chicken coop. Her mom let her take over caring for the chickens when Becky got into third grade. He realized he had eaten a lot of eggs but hadnt even thought about the chickens ever since. The hen house was weather-worn to a pale gray. There was just a hint of whitewash left on the north side. He ducked down through the low door. When his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he realized that the inside of the house was neat as a pin. Empty egg cartons were stacked along one wall, some pictures the girls had drawn in school hung on the walls and there were even some dried wildflowers sitting in an old mayonaise jar in the corner. He looked down at the low shelf where the hens had their nests. In front of each one, Becky had drawn a little name-plate: "Mable," "Miss Wallflower,", even "Clementine."
"You cryin, Daddy?" Lisa asked when he stepped back out into the sunlight.
"No, darlin. Daddys just got something in his eye, thats all."
He looked over and saw Becky watching them from their front yard. She was sitting on that broken-down tricycle of hers under the big willow tree and just watching.
"Cmon, Lisa, your daddys got an idea."
They came out of the barn and headed towards the house with Lisa rolling an old, worn out tire and Clem carrying a rope and a short ladder. Becky watched silently as they walked up to the tree and got to work. First, Clem looped one end of the rope around the tire and secured it with a good, solid knot. Then, Lisa handed him the other end and he climbed up the ladder to a thick, low branch on the tree. He tested it with is weight and then hoised up the tire. "That look to be about the right height to you, Lisa?"
His daughter frowned as seriously as she could while she looked at the tire and then at the ground. Then, she nodded up at her father and gave him a silent "okay" with her hand. Clem answered with a thumbs up and tied off the rope.
As soon as he took down the ladder, Lisa gave out a little squeal and jumped onto their new swing. Before he realized it, Becky was standing beside him. "Thanks, Daddy," she said, reaching around his legs to give him a hug.
By the end of the week, the yard was clean with grass seed down on all the bare spots, the fence around Mary Jos vegetable garden was mended, two broken windows were replaced and the shutters were all repaired.
He cleaned himself up after lunch that Friday and told his wife he was going into town. "I need to pick up some paint."
"Can we go? Can we go?" Becky and Lisa asked, jumping up from the table. Mary Jo gave him a look that said that it would be fine with her.
"Sorry girls, Im just going to the hardware store and Ill be back before suppertime." His daughters didnt argue but looked at him like he just said he was going to leave forever and never come back. The funny thing was that Mary Jo gave him the same look.
"Sure you dont want to take them?" she asked after they were out of the room.
"Next time. Well make a day out of it." he answered, trying to sound reassuring. He tried as hard as he could to look like he wasnt hiding anything from her. He found it came easy to him.
"Okay, be careful," she said, not sounding at all reassured.
When he turned onto the main road, he took a wad of bills out of the glove box and slid it into his side pocket. Earlier that week, he found the cash stashed away in one of the back compartments of his toolbox, far too much to stored away like that. He couldnt remember hiding it all, but there it was, plain as day. He counted out over a hundred and fifty dollars. He had big plans for the afternoon and had to hurry if he was to get back before dinner.
"Hey, Clem! Where ya been?" a slurry voice called out to him. He turned and saw a short, heavy set man in tattered and stained city cloths weaving towards him. His face was in about the same condition as his suit, and hadnt seen a razor in several days. "Weve missed you over at Harrys. Thought it would take more than a just a lightning bolt to keep you away!" he laughed at his joke and nearly lost his balance. "Well see you later, old buddy. Nature calls!" and he wandered towards a narrow alleyway two doors down from the hardware store.
The face and the voice were familiar, but Clem just couldnt associate them with a name. He looked around to see if anyone had seen him talking to the man. He was one of those people good folk were embarrassed to be seen around.
He stopped in the hardware store and bought enough paint to whitewash the house and Lisas chicken coop. *He figured the barn would have to wait until after the harvest. Old Jake had heard about his brush with the hereafter and gave him a real good deal. He put the paint in his truck and headed off for the rest of his errands, deep in thought about what he could get to surprise the girls with. He already knew the dress that Mary Jo had her eye on for what seemed like forever. He could use a couple of new shirts, too. Theres no reason for his wife to spend half her time doing his mending when he had this much money just laying around.
The doorway he walked into was not the one he intended. He was hit in the face the smell of exhaled whiskey and stale tobacco smoke and ambushed by an airless darkness.
"Hey there Clemmy-poo, wherere you been hidin." A cloud of cheap perfume had fully mixed with the other odors when he finally saw Jezebel emerge from the darkness. She slithered up beside him and wrapped herself around his arm. "I havent had anyone to play with all week long!"
"Uh, hi Jess." He looked down at the smiling, red lips and fair skin while her long eyelashes fluttering up at him. Her long fingers were caressing and fondling his arm as she began to move him towards the bar that loomed ahead of them. He managed to change their direction and lead her towards the door. "Ive been busy in the farm. Got a lot to catch up on before the corn comes in. You know how it is."
He felt a wave of gratitude when she pulled herself off his arm as he opened door and the afternoon sunlight washed over them. He looked over to say good-bye and saw this frightening apparition beside him. She was like a white-painted ghost Flaming red lipstick was smeared around her lips and over her teeth. A pair of bloodshot eyes were framed by dark streaks of runny mascara. "Uh, bye Jess" was all he could say before virtually running across the street to the dry goods store, hoping that some parts of his memory wouldnt bother coming back.
He didnt really appreciate all the work he did that following week until he was heading back in from the cornfield on Friday. Even under the dark clouds, the house glowed white. The old chicken coop looked like a small, pearly gem beside the fading gray of the barn. The tire swing moved in the growing breeze. For some reason, he liked that most of all. It told the world that there were children here.
The noise of the tractor masked the rumble of distant thunder until just before the storm caught up with him. First, there was a nearly simultaneous blinding flash and explosion beside him. The last thing he clearly remembered was the thick smell of ozone in the air and his effort, or at least his intent, to get himself off the tractor.
The storms paraded by through the evening and, when he sat down to relax after dinner, all the radio could receive was the lightnings crashing static. He turned to the low, mahogany cabinet and picked up a glass that rested on its top. After inspecting it under the light, he blew the dust out of it and bent down to open the beautifully carved doors. The smooth surface of the bottle felt cool and comfortable in his hand and he poured an inch or two of the golden liquid in to the glass. A comfortable, familiar aroma greeted him and he sat down to relax.
When he opened his eyes, he saw the concerned faces of old Doc Wiloughbie and his wife looking down on him. Their worried expressions made him mad as all hell. "For chrissake, what are y all starin at! Where the hell am I, anyway?"
And he knew he needed to do something about the weighty dryness in his mouth.